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Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
September 22

HEADLINE: Hanegbi:Prisoner swap deal may include Barghouti, 200 Palestinians


The government has agreed in principle to release about 400 Arab prisoners, including at least 200 Palestinians, in a swap with Hizbullah, a Palestinian source close to the German-brokered deal told the Associated Press Monday.

Marwan Barghouti, the most senior Palestinian held by the government, tops the list of those Hizbullah seeks to free, the source said, adding that negotiations on the names of those to be released are continuing.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's aides declined comment. "I prefer at this time to let the negotiators do their jobs," said Sharon adviser Raanan Gissin.

In other, related developments: " The status of long-missing Air Force navigator Ron Arad is once again a topic of discussion, with Hizbullah's leader saying anew he would seek information about him.

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah told the Lebanese daily As Safir Monday he had extended a pledge to Germany "to do my utmost" to help look into the fate of Arad, whose aircraft was shot down near Sidon 17 years ago.

"We have a lot of motivation and reasons to look into Arad's fate," he was quoted as saying. An English-language account of the interview was carried on the Jordanian Web site albawaba.com.

Hizbullah in the past has said it has no information on Arad, but wished it had, so it could be used as an extra bargaining tool in negotiations with

" An organization dedicated to Arad charged the government knows more about Arad's status than has been released.

Nasrallah reportedly said the massive prisoner swap "is about to be carried out." Nasrallah has apparently code-named the operation "Freedom Definite."

According to Nasrallah, said hundreds of Palestinian and Arab prisoners would be freed in exchange for the release of the Israeli captives Hizbullah has been holding since October 2000. The exchange will involve the release of 19 Lebanese prisoners, the delivery of all remaining bodies of Hizbullah terrorists in Israel, and a supply of maps showing the minefields the IDF left behind in South Lebanon following its withdrawal in 2000.

The AP reported that as part of the deal, Hizbullah would release businessman Elhanan Tennenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers, all kidnapped by Hizbullah in 2000.

Nasrallah said Hizbullah recently allowed a German mediator to see Tenenbaum to make sure he is alive and well and to carry a written letter from the Israeli retired army colonel to his relatives.

In exchange, the government allowed the mediator to visit Obeid and Dirani in their prison cell and carry letters from them to their families in Lebanon, Nasrallah was quoted as saying.

Israel, in turn, would free Abdel Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, two Lebanese leaders it snatched in the late 1980s and early 1990s to win the release of Arad, who was shot down over Lebanon in 1986.

As part of the negotiations, Hizbullah asked the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as Fatah party headed by Yasser Arafat, to put together lists of prisoners they would like to see released, the Palestinian source told AP.

Barghouti, Fatah leader in the West Bank, tops all three lists, the source said. Barghouti, on trial in Israel for alleged involvement in attacks that killed 26 Israelis, is increasingly seen as a possible successor to Arafat, and his popularity has been boosted by more than a year spent in jail.

Hizbullah is trying to free those who might not win release in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, including prisoners with life sentences and those convicted of killing Israelis, the Palestinian source said.

Nasrallah said one Hizbullah condition to finalize the deal was a pledge from Israel to help reveal the fate of three Iranian diplomats and their Lebanese driver, who went missing at a Lebanese Christian militia checkpoint as they were fleeing Israel's incursion into Lebanon in 1982 during Operation Peace for the Galilee.

Meanwhile, Metzger is expected to leave Monday for Kazakhstan to discuss the release of Arad with Iranian delegates. Metzger told policemen during a holiday toast at police headquarters he was headed to a meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, after which he would be leaving for a Muslim country he would not name as part of an interfaith religious meeting. Albawaba.com reported Metzger's meeting is in Kazakhstan.

Senior sources in the Prime Minister's office rejected allegations that Sharon has avoided meeting members of the families of missing Israelis or their representatives.

"The precise opposite is the case. This issue has always been a top priority on the Prime Minister's agenda and his door is always open to members of the families who wish to meet him," a senior source told the Jerusalem Post.

Regarding the specific claim that Sharon knows Arad is alive and has been hiding this information, the source said he did not wish to make any reference because "any comments on this would only damage the very delicate situation that exists and the less said the better."

The source said the prime minister has viewed the lives, safety, well-being and the safe return of Israelis captives as a top priority.

"No prime minister has or would ever abandon any missing Israelis, and especially not this prime minister," the source said.

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