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Copyright 2003 Haaretz
September 18

HEADLINE: Israel may include Palestinians in Hezbollah prisoner swap

BYLINE: Amos Harel and Mazal Mualem, Haaretz Service and Agencies

Israeli security sources acknowledged early Thursday the information revealed in a speech given by Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah Wednesday, pertaining to the release of Palestinian prisoners in a pending prisoner swap with the Lebanese organization.

The deal is said to lead to the release of Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the return of the bodies of three IDF soldiers, all of whom were abducted in 2000.

Channel One reported that a Hamas official recently met with Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah to discuss the ongoing negotiations with Israel.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said that the talks were at an advanced stage and that there was hope that a deal could be reached over the High Holy Days, which begin at the end of next week.

In a separate report, Channel Two said that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently met with the relatives of IAF navigator Ron Arad, who has been missing since 1986, and told them that he would soon have to make a difficult decision concerning Arad.

According to the report, Sharon met with Ron's brothers, Chen and Dudu, and his wife Tami. He told them that it Israel might have to decide to release Sheikh Abd al Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani in a prisoner swap with Hezbollah in order to free Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and to receive the bodies of three IDF soldiers, all of whome were abducted in 2000.

The two Lebanese men were abducted by Israel in the early 1990s as bargaining chips in an effort to determine Arad's fate.

Channel Two also reported that Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, in private talks, said that Israel should not give up efforts to find Arad.

Talks on a possible prisoner exchange with Hezbollah will be renewed next week in Germany, the report said.

Nasrallah: Prisoner swap will include Palestinians Earlier Wednesday, Nasrallah said that a possible prisoner swap with Israel was intended to include Palestinian, Syrian and Jordanian detainees in Israeli jails, in addition to Lebanese prisoners.

"The exchange operation that we are working to achieve will include Lebanese, Jordanians and Syrians regardless of numbers, and definitely Palestinians," Nasrallah said in a speech in Beirut.

"Definitely the Palestinian [prisoners] will be in any swap that is reached," he said. "We are about to finish the stage of numbers to get into the names and criteria."

His remarks were the latest round of public negotiation in the prisoner swap talks, which both sides say have picked up pace since Israel handed over the remains of two Hezbollah members to the group last month.

Nasrallah, whose group has previously sought to include Palestinians and other Arabs in a swap along with about a dozen Lebanese prisoners, called the talks the "most favorable negotiations that have taken place in the recent past."

The handover was seen as a precursor to a possible exchange, and Israel said it hoped for a swap within months.

Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, abducted three IDF soldiers in October 2000, months after then prime minister Ehud Barak pulled the IDF out of southern Lebanon after more than 20 years.

Weeks later, the group captured Israeli citizen Elhanan Tannenbaum, claiming he was a Mossad agent. Israeli officials said in exchange for the bodies a German mediator was allowed to visit Tannenbaum and found him in "reasonable condition."

The three soldiers have been declared fallen in action, but the return of their bodies is considered a national priority. Israel also wants information on long-missing air force navigator Ron Arad, who was shot down over Lebanon in 1986.

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