Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
HEADLINE: Hizbullah exchange said to exclude Arad
BYLINE: DAVID RUDGE
Israel has reportedly agreed to release Palestinian as well as Lebanese prisoners in return for the freeing of businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three missing IDF soldiers, without including IAF navigator Ron Arad.
According to television news reports, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met on Sunday with members of Arad's family and informed them that a very difficult decision is in the offing.
The Fellowship for Ron Arad's Release and his family have been insisting that negotiations over any exchange deal include the missing navigator or, at least, information about him.
The reported meeting of Sharon with Arad's family, his comments and statements made in the past few days by Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, all appeared to indicate that the terms for an exchange have been set in principle and a decision now has to be made.
Nasrallah made it clear on Wednesday that any agreement over a prisoner exchange deal will include the release of Palestinians, Syrians and Jordanians, as well as Lebanese held by Israel.
According to reports from Lebanon, Nasrallah said that the numbers and identities of the Palestinians to be free have not been fixed.
The reports maintained, however, that Nasrallah was adamant that non-Lebanese, including Palestinians, would be involved in any deal and that agreement had already been reached on this issue.
Nasrallah was quoted as saying that the negotiations were more serious than any previous ones and that they had entered a crucial stage.
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said negotiations were at an advanced stage and that there was hope a deal could be made over the upcoming holidays.
Nasrallah spoke at a conference in which he urged the Palestinian people "to continue their armed struggle" and called on the Arab and Muslim world to unite in the fight against "the Zionist enemy."
Last month Israel returned to Lebanon the bodies of two Hizbullah gunmen, apparently in exchange for a German mediator being allowed to visit Tannenbaum who is being held by Hizbullah.
Tannenbaum, who was reported to be in reasonably good health, was kidnapped while on a trip abroad in October 2000, shortly after Hizbullah abducted three soldiers in an ambush in the Mount Dov region.
The soldiers, St.-Sgts. Benny Avraham, Omar Sawayid and Adi Avitan have since been declared dead by the IDF and their place of burial unknown.
The mediation efforts are being brokered by a German team headed by Ernest Uhrlau, coordinator of the Federal Intelligence Service and a members of the Chancellor's Office.
A short while after the return of the bodies of the two Hizbullah men, Uhrlau visited two leading Lebanese being held by Israel Hizbullah's former leader in south Lebanon Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, who was abducted by IDF troops in 1989, and Believers Resistance chief Mustafa Dirani.
Dirani, as a former senior Amal security chief, handed over IAF navigator Ron Arad to Hizbullah or Iranian officials when Arad was captured after ejecting from his plane over Lebanon in 1986.
The two were kidnapped specifically to try and find information about Arad and to be used as bargaining chips in negotiations that would ultimately lead to his release and return to Israel.
Senior Hizbullah officials, including Nasrallah, have consistently reiterated that the organization has no information whatsoever regarding the fate and whereabouts of Arad.
It now appears that Arad's family is being at least sounded out over the possibility that Obeid and Dirani will be released along with others in return for Tannenbaum and the IDF soldiers, without including the missing navigator in the deal.
Nasrallah, at the conference on Wednesday, said that the coming weeks were decisive and would determine whether a prisoners exchange deal would take place.
"Definitely the Palestinians 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."
At a rally in Beirut on Tuesday, the Hizbullah leader said that "the negotiations are ongoing, active and, God willing, will solve the issue of the prisoners and the detainees."
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