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Monday, January 26, 2004

Israel to exchange 400 Arab prisoners for one kidnapped Israeli and the remains of three soldiers

NY Times: JERUSALEM, Jan. 24 — Israel will free more than 400 Arab prisoners in a swap with Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrilla group, an important breakthrough that will return a kidnapped Israeli businessman and the remains of three Israeli soldiers, officials said Saturday.

The complicated exchange was brokered by the German government and is set to be carried out on Jan. 29, said Israeli, German and Hezbollah officials, all of whom confirmed the agreement in separate announcements Saturday night.

"We are satisfied that our boys are coming home, that's our main concern," said Jonathan Peled, spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry.

The deal is a rare instance in which Israel and Hezbollah have managed to reach an accord. Israel pulled its military out of southern Lebanon in May 2000 after battling with Hezbollah for the better part of two decades. But no peace agreement was reached, and the parties still exchange fire across the border Israeli-Lebanese border.

Israel and Hezbollah will exchange not only the living, but also the remains of fighters who, even in death, have been held captive for years.

Israel will free mostly Palestinian prisoners, but it will also release 23 from Lebanon, 5 from Syria, 5 from Morocco, 3 from Sudan and one from Libya, an Israeli official said.

The most prominent among them will be two Lebanese guerrilla leaders, Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, who was seized in 1989, and Mustafa Dirani, captured in 1994. Israel has never charged them with crimes.

In addition, Israel will repatriate the remains of 59 Lebanese, most of them Hezbollah fighters killed in southern Lebanon before Israel's pullout, the official added.

In return, Hezbollah will free Elhanan Tannenbaum, an Israeli businessman kidnapped in October 2000 in the United Arab Emirates, Israeli media reports said. That same month, Hezbollah forces ambushed three of Israeli soldiers along the border and took them into Lebanon. Israel has declared them dead, and their remains are to be returned.

For years, Israel and Hezbollah have staged on-and-off negotiations through third parties, and a deal appeared within reach last November when Israel's cabinet narrowly approved an agreement in principle. But there had been no word recently on the negotiations, and the announcement on Saturday came as a surprise.

Tensions rose again this past week when Hezbollah guerrillas fired a missile that hit an Israeli armored military bulldozer, killing a soldier and seriously wounding a second.

A small number of Lebanese who killed Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon are expected to be released, but no other prisoners with what Israel called "blood on their hands" are to be freed.

Israel will not release Samir Qantar, a Lebanese sentenced to life in prison for an attack in 1979 that killed an Israeli man and his 4-year-old daughter in their home. Hezbollah had been demanding the release of Mr. Qantar and all other Lebanese prisoners, but apparently agreed to drop that demand rather than risk undermining the deal.

The exchange has produced anguished debates in Israel, with the government, the public and the families of the missing Israelis expressed mixed feelings.

... some Israeli critics said Israel was paying too high a price and expressed concern that the arrangement could encourage more kidnappings.
See also analysis in the Jerusalem Post: German mediation was the key, and The Best of Enemies at Slate.