Middle East News
Israeli cabinet okays prisoner exchange with Hezbollah (Roundup)
Jul 15, 2008, 13:23 GMT
Jerusalem - After nearly two years of difficult, United Nations-mediated negotiations, the Israeli cabinet gave its final approval to a prisoner exchange deal with Lebanon's Hezbollah, paving the way for the swap to go ahead Wednesday.
The exchange is expected to start at 9 am (0600 GMT) on the coast at the only border crossing between Israel and Lebanon of Rosh Ha'Nikra/Naquora.
An Israeli military statement said the border crossing would be declared a 'closed military zone' as of Tuesday night, ahead of the swap, to be carried out under the auspices of the Red Cross.
Under the agreement, Israel is to hand over the bodies of 199 'enemy combatants,' exhumed already last week from an anonymous cemetery in the north of the country.
In return it is to receive two Israeli soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, whose capture in a surprise, July 2006 cross-border raid by Hezbollah had sparked a month-long, deadly and destructive war that had failed to secure their release.
The two are widely believed to be dead, although Israel will only have final confirmation when the actual transfer takes place.
Only after the two soldiers are identified, will Israel transfer five Lebanese prisoners - Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) militant Samir Kuntar and four Hezbollah fighters captured in the 2006 war.
Kuntar is serving multiple life sentences for leading a 1979 raid into northern Israel from Lebanon, which left five Israelis dead.
The deal is controversial in Israel, where Kuntar is seen as a 'ruthless murderer,' mainly because Israelis fear that his release means giving up a last chance to obtain conclusive information on the fate of missing Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad, whose plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986 and who disappeared without a trace.
Israel had thus far refused to pardon Kuntar and include him in past prisoners exchanges, seeing him as a key bargaining chip in the case of Arad.
But under a compromise brokered by UN-appointed German mediator Gerhard Conrad, Israel agreed to receive a detailed, yet inconclusive report submitted by Hezbollah and detailing the radical Shiite movement's - failed - efforts to find out what had happened to Arad.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and 21 other ministers voted Tuesday for the deal, despite fierce opposition by Israel's Shin Bet internal security and Mossad intelligence organizations.
Three ministers voted against, including two from Olmert's own Kadima party.
A statement said the government decided to go ahead with the swap, even though it agreed with the Shin Bet and Mossad that Hezbollah's report on Arad was highly unsatisfactory and contained no new information.
Slamming the report, a government statement said the cabinet 'absolutely' rejected its findings and conclusions, and charged that it 'does not meet the conditions of the agreement.'
The statement thanked the German mediator and the German government for their role in securing the deal.
Germany had already brokered another prisoner swap between Israel and Hezbollah in early 2004.
The cabinet statement also vowed 'not to slacken' its efforts to locate the whereabouts of Arad.
Israeli President Shimon Peres was later in the day expected to sign Kuntar's pardon, but he said he would do so with a 'trembling hand.'
The pardon is conditional on the release of Regev and Goldwasser, and takes effect their identification at the border crossing.
Peres said the day of Kuntar's release was 'not a happy day' for Israel, but he said the Israeli government had a 'moral and emotional obligation' to bring home soldiers captured while serving on its behalf.
The Israeli military statement also said Wednesday's 'painful process exemplifies Israel's moral commitment to secure the return of all of their soldiers sent on operational missions.'
But Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim, of Kadima, one of the three ministers who voted against, said the deal made Israel look weak in a Middle East where all issues were measured 'in terms of national strength or weakness.'
Referring to an Israeli soldier held captive by the radical Islamic Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip, he said: 'Nobody should be surprised if Hamas now raises the prices for his release.' Hamas and other groups planning to carry out future kidnappings would have no incentive to keep their captives alive, because Israel was paying a 'high price' for 'corpses too,' he told Israel Radio.
Nine trucks of the International Red Cross arrived in Israel from Jordan to transport to Lebanon some 199 bodies of the Lebanese fighters and militants killed in fighting with Israel.
Red Cross representatives meanwhile also met the five Lebanese prisoners in central Israel's Hadarim prison to ensure they were ready for their transfer.