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Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
September 23

HEADLINE: Hanegbi:Nasrallah vows to discover Arad's fate


Israel has reportedly agreed to release 400 Arab prisoners, half of them Palestinians, as part of a deal with Hizbullah in exchange for the return of businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three missing soldiers.

The details were revealed in a news agency report on Monday, as Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah pledged that the organization would "exert its utmost efforts" to obtain information about the fate of missing IAF navigator Lt.-Col. Ron Arad, whose plane went down over Lebanon 17 years ago.

According to an Associated Press report, Israel has agreed in principle to release 200 Lebanese, Jordanians, and Syrians, as well as a similar number of Palestinians, as part of the deal.

Nasrallah, in an interview with the Lebanese daily As-Safir, reiterated that Hizbullah has no information about Arad but would now actively seek news of him in order to obtain details about eight missing Iranian diplomats and the release of more Palestinian prisoners not included in the proposed exchange.

"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 Israel.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger said on Monday he will raise the issue of Arad with a grandson of Iran's late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at an interfaith meeting soon. Albawaba.com reported Metzger's meeting is in Kazakhstan.

When asked who would be accompanying him on the trip, Metzger replied: "the Holy One Blessed be He."

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

Yoske Harari, head of the Fellowship for Ron Arad's Release, charged that Nasrallah could not be trusted and that his promises toward Israel were almost worthless.

"Nasrallah is a bigger liar than [Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser] Arafat, and therefore we cannot rely on what he says. I call on him to prove me wrong," Harari told The Jerusalem Post.

Senior sources in his office rejected allegations that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has avoided meeting members of the families of missing Israelis and 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," said a senior source.

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

Regarding the 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. The less said, the better."

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

According to a report in the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds, the head of the Israeli negotiating team left for Berlin on Sunday and met with German mediator Ernest Uhrlau in an effort to complete the final details of the agreement.

Al-Quds quoted Israeli sources as saying that negotiations are likely to be concluded in a matter of days.

The report quoted a senior PA source, allegedly close to the deal, as saying that West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti tops the list of Palestinians that Hizbullah is seeking to free, although negotiations are continuing over the names.

Barghouti is on trial on charges relating to terrorist atrocities in which 26 people were killed. He has been detained since being snatched by security forces from his West Bank hideout about a year ago.

The PA source also maintained that as part of the negotiations, Hizbullah had asked Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and even Arafat's mainstream Fatah organization to formulate lists of those detainees they would like to see released.

Barghouti tops all three lists, the source said. Barghouti is increasingly seen as a possible successor to Arafat, and his popularity has been boosted by more than a year spent in jail.

Observers here, however, maintained that the PA has not been involved in the negotiations and that the inclusion of Barghouti in any proposed deal represents, for now at least, wishful thinking.

According to Nasrallah, 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.

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

In exchange, the government allowed the mediator to visit Abdel Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani two Lebanese leaders it snatched in the late 1980s and early 1990s in order to win the release of Arad in prison and carry letters from them to their families in Lebanon, Nasrallah was quoted as saying.

Israel, reportedly, would free Obeid and Dirani.

Hizbullah is trying to free those who might not win release in negotiations between Israel and the PA, 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 during Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982.

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