Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
HEADLINE: Prisoner exchange imminent, sides say
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz expressed cautious optimism on Tuesday about the prospects of reaching a prisoner exchange with Hizbullah, although he noted that there had been bitter experiences with the organization in the past.
"We are not revealing information about any proposed agreement," Mofaz told reporters during a ceremony to toast the new year with the chief of General Staff and OC Southern Command at the Erez crossing point in Gaza.
"It is correct to say that there are contacts, although we have had bitter experiences with Hizbullah. In the past, there were various contacts that were ended," Mofaz told reporters. His comments coincided with reports, especially in the Palestinian press, that a final deal is imminent and that the swap could take place shortly after Rosh Hashana.
In the meantime, the family of missing IAF navigator Lt.-Col. Ron Arad is intensifying efforts to ensure he will be included in any deal.
The Arad family and its representatives said they welcome the prospect of the return of businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three missing IDF soldiers.
They oppose, however, the release of Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, former Hizbullah leader in South Lebanon, and particularly Believers Resistance head Mustafa Dirani.
Dirani, as a former senior Amal security chief, held Arad for over a year, when the latter was captured in October 1986 after ejecting from his plane over Lebanon because of a technical failure, and then reportedly sold him, through the auspices of Hizbullah, to Iran.
Obeid, who was abducted in 1989, and Dirani, who was snatched in 1994, were both seen as bargaining chips for the return of Arad or for obtaining verifiable information about his fate.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with members of Arad's family nearly two weeks ago and informed them he was facing a difficult decision in the negotiations over a prisoner exchange.
Sharon promised to meet with them again prior to the conclusion of any deal. So far, the second scheduled meeting has not taken place despite the burgeoning reports that an agreement could be reached within a few days.
Channel 2 reported on Tuesday night that Sharon had decided to convene a full meeting of the cabinet and not just the security cabinet to decide on any deal.
According to the report, there is a possibility that any deal, which would apparently be subject to approval by the entire cabinet, could even be rejected under such circumstances.
Recent reports, primarily in Palestinian newspapers, as well as an Associated Press story quoting senior Palestinian sources allegedly close to the negotiations, have said that the deal would involve the release of 400 Arab detainees, half of them Palestinians, as well as the bodies of Hizbullah and other Lebanese gunmen and also the remains of Palestinians killed in clashes in Lebanon and elsewhere.
In return, according to these reports, Israel will receive Tannenbaum and the bodies of the three soldiers, St.-Sgts. Benny Avraham, Omar Sawayid, and Adi Avitan, kidnapped in a Hizbullah ambush in the Mount Dov area in October 2000.
The soldiers have since been declared dead and their place of burial unknown, whereas Tannenbaum is known to be alive and was recently visited by a German mediator who brought back a letter from him to his family.
In return, Israel allowed a visit to Obeid and Dirani, who also sent letters to their families, and returned to Lebanon the bodies of two Lebanese gunmen, apparently as a goodwill gesture to help the negotiations.
The reports in the Palestinian media said Hizbullah was seeking to free Palestinian terrorists who would not be released by Israel as part of the road map to peace in the region.
West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti was mentioned as one of those whom Hizbullah was trying to free after alleged consultations with leaders of Palestinian factions in the territories.
Mofaz cast doubts over the numbers and names of those reportedly to be released in any exchange deal and he made clear that Barghouti on trial on 26 counts of murdering Israelis was definitely not among them.
"Today, it seems, according to the comments of [Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah, that there is some progress, which first and foremost serves his interests. He is also releasing names and numbers of those to be released by us from Israel's prisons that I am not so sure are accurate... we have no intention of releasing Barghouti."
His comments were echoed by Justice Minister Yosef Lapid who said there was no way in a democratic country abiding by the rule of law and order that a person in the midst of a trial could be released.
Meanwhile, the news that Arab prisoners are to be released as part of the proposed deal has galvanized the family of Azzam Azzam, who is being held in prison in Egypt after being found guilty of spying for Israel, even though the charges have been categorically denied.
Members of his family expressed the hope that he would be released as part of a prisoner exchange, even though no Egyptian nationals are believed to be held by Israel.
The Hizbullah run Al-Manar satellite TV station also reported that the number of prisoners in question stands at 215, not 400 as previously reported. Many of the Palestinian prisoners in question belong to Hamas, some of them with "blood on their hands."
Hizbullah also reported that the Aqsa Martyrs Brigade leader in Nablus, Nasser Aweis, responsible for the deaths of about a dozen Israelis, might also be released in the swap.
Aweis served as one of Marwan Barghouti's lieutenants, carrying out dozens of attacks in the name of the Tanzim until his arrest in April 2002. The PFLP's Abdul Rahim Malouh could also be part of the swap, Al-Manar reported.
Hizbullah is also gaining popularity in Palestinian streets. Al-Manar broadcast a report showing Fatah leaders calling on Hizbullah to include their sons on the prisoners' list. Fatah leader Qadura Fares and Abdul Jawad Saleh, a former minister, both lobbied to Hizbullah to free their sons.
"Irrespective of the deal currently being negotiated with Hizbullah, Israel will continue to work for the release of missing navigator Ron Arad, and he will remain an issue for all Israelis until he comes home," President Moshe Katsav told reporters Tuesday at the tail-end of a meeting with Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski and members of the Jerusalem City Council.
Israel is willing to pay the highest price for the release of Ron Arad said Katsav, adding emphasis to this commitment by correcting himself and saying: "Israel will pay any price for Ron Arad's release. I hope this message reaches the right people."
Whatever agreement the government concludes with Hizbullah, said Katsav, "does not diminish our obligation to Ron Arad."
Matthew Gutman and Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.
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