Tel Aviv: An expected Israeli prisoner exchange with Hezbollah, a Shiite terrorist group that sits along Lebanon’s southern border with Israel, is raising eyebrows in the Middle East because the swap reportedly includes Israel’s release of some Palestinian terrorists.
In an interview with the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir Monday, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said the German-mediated deal he code-named "Freedom Definite" would include hundreds of Palestinian and Arab prisoners. The Hezbollah-run Al Manar satellite television station placed the number of prisoners to be released at 215. It claimed also that many of them belong to Hamas and that some have "blood on their hands."
In return, Hezbollah is expected to release Elhanan Tannenbaum, a businessman and Israeli reserve colonel kidnapped three years ago in Europe, and
the bodies of three Israeli soldiers (Benny Avraham, Omar Suwad and Adi Avitan) kidnapped while patrolling the Lebanese border in October 2000. Israel has been seeking information on the fate of Ron Arad, whose air force plane was shot down in 1986, but it is believed that Arad may be out of Hezbollah control.
Hezbollah, which operates a militia in southern Lebanon and sits in the Lebanese parliament, has come under pressure from the government to release Tannenbaum. His abduction to Lebanon has embarrassed the government, experts said.
"Lebanon feels uncomfortable in the international arena playing host to that sort of operation," said Shmuel Bar, a fellow at the Herzilya Interdisciplinary Centerís Counter Terrorism Institute.
The inclusion of Palestinian prisoners in the Hezbollah swap would give leader Nasrallah a victory that would bolster his prestige in the Arab world as a champion of the Palestinian cause. The organization has been gaining popularity among Palestinians. Al Manar reported that leaders of Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat’s Fatah organization had called upon Hezbollah to include Palestinian prisoners in any swap.
Other reports said Hezbollah actually asked Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah to draw up a list of prisoners they wanted released. The Lebanese newspaper al-Mustaqbal reported Wednesday that a list was being completed.
Such a release would mark a rare concession for Israel, according to Israeli experts, who note that until now Israel has resisted linking the release of militants arrested in the West Bank and Gaza to talks with Hezbollah. (A major prisoner swap took place in 1985 when Israel released more than 1,000 Palestinians in return for three Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon.)
Maggie Mitchell, a senior adviser to the president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said that although Hezbollah has in the past concerned itself almost exclusively with Lebanon and left Palestinians to fend for themselves, its outreach to the Palestinians appears to be driven by monetary concerns.
Mitchell, who spoke by phone from Dubai where she was attending a meeting of the International Monetary Fund, said informed sources told her that Hezbollah has been having problems because of tighter controls placed on money transfers since Sept. 11. Most of its money is transferred from Iran.
"That is hampering Hezbollahís funding and so it has had to think more creatively to maintain a base of support," she said, noting that its decision to champion the Palestinian cause should be seen in that light.
Backed by Iran and Syria, Hezbollah is the group that fought Israel’s army while it maintained a security zone in southern Lebanon during the 1980s and 1990s. Israel pulled out of Lebanon in May 2000, a withdrawal certified by the United Nations. But Hezbollah claimed the withdrawal was not complete and has launched occasional attacks on Israeli army patrols, such as the one that ended in the capture of the three Israeli soldiers in October 2000. The area of dispute is known as Sheba Farms that Israel contends was former Syrian and not Lebanese territory.
The prisoner swap is said to also involve Mustafa Dirani and Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, two Hezbollah operatives kidnapped by Israel in 1994 and 1989 respectively as negotiating chips to secure the release of Arad, the Air Force navigator taken prisoner in Lebanon 17 years ago.
Arad’s family believes that Dirani sold Arad to the Iranians after snatching him from the Amal militia group in October 1987. The family went to court Monday and sued Dirani for $25 million in damages for the "shocking and inhumane" treatment to which Arad was subjected. The move is the first step in an effort to keep the Israeli government from including Dirani in the prisoner swap, which does not now involve Arad’s release.
"People should understand that they have an obligation toward Ron," said Aradís brother Dudu in an interview with Israel Radio "The commanders who dispatched him shouldn’t forget him there."
Arad’s family met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon two weeks ago, during which the prime minister reportedly explained why Arad could not be included in the planned exchange and apologized for the situation.
According to analysts, Israel has concluded that Hezbollah can do little to secure Arad’s release and is shifting its efforts to pressuring Iran, which it accuses of holding Arad. That calculation has prompted Israeli negotiators to focus on the release of Tannenbaum, the kidnapped businessman, and the bodies of the kidnapped soldiers.
"It’s a matter of reality and practical purposes," said Yoram Schweitzer, a fellow at the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies. "It was a difficult decision that was made."
Meanwhile, Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzer attending an interfaith conference against terrorism in Kazakhstan, met with a top Iranian official there who agreed in principle to look into Arad’s fate. But the rabbi later told Israel Army Radio that he doubted anything would come of the move.
Elon Questions Deal
Israeli Tourism Minister Benny Elon voiced some discomfort about the whole propriety of releasing Palestinian prisoners for Tannenbaum.
"The system of kidnapping Jews and Israelis in order to negotiate is something we have to think about again," he said during a visit here. "I don’t want to say I am against it (we do have to do the best we can to release our prisoners) but we have to be careful that we do not make it an action in which every Jew will be under the threat of being held hostage in order that we negotiate [his release]."
"Even though the release of prisoners is the greatest mitzvah, there are times when one is not allowed to seek the release of Jewish prisoners because it might become fashionable," Elon said. He recalled the case of Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, better known as the Maharam of Rothenburg, who refused to allow his community to pay a large ransom for his release from a German prison in 1286. He sought to prevent situations leading to rabbis being kidnapped for money, said Elon. The rabbi remained in prison another seven years until his death.
Yehudit Dasberg, whose daughter and son-in-law, Efrat and Yaron Ungar were killed in a June 1996 terrorist attack, came out flatly against the prisoner swap. In the Israeli daily Maariv, she wrote about the 1985 Jibril deal, in which Israel freed 1,150 Palestinian terrorists in exchange for the release of three Israeli soldiers held for almost three years by warlord Ahmed Jibril in Lebanon.
Many of those freed terrorists "brought about the first intifada, which in turn led to the second one," she wrote. "The government then did not know what would happen and had good intentions, but we must not repeat the same mistakes again."
Israeli Officials Quiet
Although Nasrallah has spoken of a prisoner swap for several weeks, Israeli officials have generally remained quiet. But this week, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz confirmed that talks were under way and making progress.
"It’s correct to say that there are negotiations, but beyond that we have a bitter experience with Hezbollah," Mofaz told reporters. "In the past there have been various contact but they have been stopped. Today it seems… that there has been progress."
Media reports said Wednesday that a deal could be reached within days. Both Israel and Hezbollah face pressure from the families of the prisoners of war to reach a compromise. And in the wake of the occupation of Iraq, Hezbollah’s Syrian and Iranian patrons have come under pressure from the U.S. to reign in Hezbollah.
There had been reports that Fatah militant Marwan Barghouti was one of those slated for release. But Mofaz denied Barghouti would go free, a decision that would require Israel to drop a year-old murder trial being conducted against the second most popular Palestinian political figure.
The Haaretz newspaper reported that Israel wants to expel the Palestinians freed under the deal.
Joshua Mitnick is an Israel correspondent; Stewart Ain is a staff writer.