Israel, Hezbollah discuss prisoner exchange


JERUSALEM, Dec. 12 (JTA) – An Israeli official has confirmed that contacts are under way to secure the release of three Israeli soldiers and an Israeli businessman held by Hezbollah in Lebanon, but said no breakthrough had been made.

Israel is “attempting through a number of channels to bring the captives home,” Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh told Israel Army Radio on Monday. “I am sorry to say there has yet to be a breakthrough.”

Sneh was commenting on various reports, mostly from Lebanon, of progress in negotiations with the Shi’ite guerrilla group Hezbollah that could lead to an exchange of the Israelis for 19 Arabs held by Israel.

Both a Hezbollah official and Israeli President Moshe Katsav were quoted over the weekend as saying Germany has been mediating the efforts.

Reports Monday said the exchange could take place by the end of the month. According to the reports, initial progress was made during talks that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder held in Lebanon in October.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami left Monday for France, where he reportedly was to discuss the prisoner exchange issue with his German counterpart.

Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli army’s chief of staff, would not comment on the matter. Mofaz met Monday with families of the three kidnapped soldiers: Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Souad.

Hezbollah abducted the three in a cross-border attack in the disputed Shabaa Farms area in early October. Shortly after, Hezbollah kidnapped an Israeli businessman, Elhanan Tannenbaum, who also serves as a colonel in the reserves.

Efforts to obtain information on the well being of the soldiers have been fruitless. Foreign press reports previously suggested that at least one of the kidnapped soldiers would have died of wounds sustained in the attack unless treated immediately afterward.

Prior to their meeting with Mofaz, the soldiers’ families met with the representative in Israel of the International Red Cross. The families urged the official to press for information on their sons’ fates. They also presented the official with a Torah, a Koran for Souad, who is a Bedouin, and a menorah, which they asked be conveyed to the soldiers.

An uncle of Souad said the families had not received any new information regarding the soldiers.

Germany previously helped mediate an exchange of the remains of Israeli navy commandos killed in Lebanon for those of Hezbollah fighters.

Among the Lebanese prisoners held by Israel are Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, top operatives of Hezbollah and a rival Shi’ite militia, Amal. The two were kidnapped by Israeli commando units from their homes in 1989 and 1994.

Israel released most other Lebanese prisoners earlier this year, but has continued to hold Obeid and Dirani as bargaining chips for information on Ron Arad, the Israeli air force navigator taken captive after his plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986.

American Jewish groups also are joining the effort to free the kidnaped soldiers, as well as other Israeli soldiers who have gone missing in action in Lebanon over the years.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the United Jewish Communities and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs are dedicating the Shabbat of Chanukah on Dec. 23 to the soldiers.

The organizations are mobilizing schools, synagogues and groups to wear blue ribbons as a sign of solidarity,m and send letters to Capitol Hill asking U.S. lawmakers to write to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Red Cross to help secure the release of the soldiers.

(JTA correspondent Sharon Samber in Washington contributed to this report.)

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