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Copyright 2003 Haaretz
September 23

HEADLINE: Israel weighing exile for Palestinians freed in Hezbollah swap

BYLINE: Amos Harel and Arnon Regular

Israel is examining the possibility of sending into temporary or permanent exile Palestinian prisoners expected to be released in a prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah. Prisoner group leaders in Israeli jails have expressed agreement in principle to the proposal as long as the expulsion is temporary.

Last night, Maj. Gen. (res.) Ilan Biran was on his way back to Germany for talks with mediator Ernst Urlau, representing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's office. Israeli security sources said that the latest statements issued by Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah are too optimistic, and that no final agreement has yet to be reached over the number, or identity, of Palestinians to be released. The sources also emphasized that Israel does not intend to relase Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank Fatah leader on trial in Israel as a terrorist and considered a likely heir to PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, in the Hezbollah deal.

Al Quds, the largest circulation daily in the Palestinian territories, yesterday quoted Israeli and Lebanese sources saying that Israel will release Abdel Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, who were captured in the late 1980s and early 1990s to win the release of missing IAF navigator Ron Arad. Reports have said that Israel will also release Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian prisoners in the deal. In return, Hezbollah would release businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three IDF soldiers - Benny Avraham, Omar Suwad and Adi Avitan - who were kidnapped at the Lebanese border in late 2000 and are considered to be dead by the IDF.

Nasrallah said yesterday that although Hezbollah has no information about the fate of Arad, it would seek as much information as possible about the missing airman apparently to use as a bargaining chip for future prisoner releases and for information about the whereabouts of four missing Iranian diplomats arrested by Israeli-affiliated "Lebanese Forces" in the 1980s. Hezbollah believes the four diplomats are in Israeli custody.

Israel has continuously turned down Hezbollah demands to free Palestinian prisoners as part of a deal, partly due to their refusal to be expelled from the country, an Israeli condition. But there has been a softening of the prisoners' position, partly because of the precedent set in the Church of the Nativity case when armed men surrendered in exchange for a safe passage to Cyprus, and from there to a number of European countries. Israel will try to present Palestinians who are released as expelled, while the Palestinians will present them as exiled.

There have been intensive contacts between Hezbollah's leadership in Beirut and Damascus and the Palestinian prisoner leadership in Israel, both through cellular phones smuggled into the prisons and via envoys. Gradually, a list of about 400 prisoners was drawn up with prisoners from all the Palestinian factions appearing on Hezbollah's list. Many of those on the list have "blood on their hands," and some are serving life sentences. Hezbollah is also insisting on freedom for political leaders in the prisons.

Aside from Barghouti, Hezbollah is seeking the release of Hamas activists such as Hassan Yusuf, Hassan Tawil, Abdul Halek Natshe and Jamal Abu Hilja; Fatah activists Ahmed Barghouti and Nasser Awis; and Islamic Jihad activists Ali Safuri, Thabet Mardawi and Nur Jaber, who just yesterday admitted in military court that he was involved in attacks that took the lives of some 50 Israelis.

But security services sources say the negotiations are still not over, and it is unclear whether Israel will agree to Hezbollah's demands. The sources said the list of prisoners to be freed has not been finalized, and it is uncertain that the government will allow prisoners with blood on their hands to be released. As one defense source said yesterday: "There's a lot of exaggeration in the information coming out from Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority."

Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry, Judge Advocat General and Shin Bet have begun unofficial preliminary work to prepare for the release of Palestinian prisoners as part of the deal. The deal is expected to be challenged by relatives of victims of terror attacks as well as some ministers in the government.

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