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Copyright 2003 Haaretz
September 24

HEADLINE: IAF chief: Ron Arad must be part of any prisoner swap

BYLINE: Amos Harel and Arnon Regular

With a prisoner-exchange deal with Hezbollah rumored to be close, Israel Air Force commander Major-General Dan Halutz has voiced opposition to any swap that excludes airman Ron Arad, missing since he was shot down over southern Lebanon 17 years ago, Israel Radio reported Wednesday.

In a letter sent to IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, Halutz said he viewed Ron Arad as "part of any deal being worked out toward any solution" of the issue of missing servicemen, the radio said. Halutz said Arad, who was captured alive by Lebanese militiamen but whose fate is unknown, must be viewed as still alive, so long as there is no proof to the contrary.

Israel Defense Forces sources said Tuesday they believe that a prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah could be finalized within two weeks. Sources in Beirut were even more optimistic, telling Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) that, "if all goes well," the deal could be completed in 10 days.

Details of the proposed deal have been sketchy, but it is widely believed in Israel that demands for information on Arad's fate will not be an essential element of the swap.

Al-Quds newspaper has reported that as part of the deal, Israel would free Abdel Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani - two Lebanese militant leaders it kidnapped in 1989 and 1994 respectively, to win the release of IAF navigator Arad, who was forced to abandon his plane over Lebanon in 1986, as well as other Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian prisoners.

In return, Hezbollah would release Israeli citizen Elhanan Tannenbaum and the three IDF soldiers - Benny Avraham, Omar Suwad and Adi Avitan - who were kidnapped in October 2000, and who the IDF has declared war casualties whose place of burial was unknown.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz confirmed on Tuesday that advances had been made in negotiations over a hostage exchange deal with Hezbollah.

Nevertheless, Mofaz emphasized the inaccuracy of statements made by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah regarding the names and numbers of individuals the latter said would be released in a deal.

The defense minister also noted that Israel does not intend to release jailed senior Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti in any prisoner exchange deal. Palestinian and Lebanese sources have said, however, that the hostage swap deal would include 400 Palestinian prisoners, including Barghouti.

The East Jerusalem Al-Quds newspaper reported Tuesday that the anticipated prisoner swap will take place two days after the end of the Rosh Hashanah holiday on Sunday night.

Barghouti is the highest-ranking Palestinian figure currently jailed by Israel.

Mofaz made his statements at a Rosh Hashanah toast with IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon.

Major-General (res.) Ilan Biran and Israel Defense Forces representative "L" arrived Tuesday in Germany to continue talks with prisoner-swap mediator Ernst Urlau, who is representing German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's office. Israeli sources said the consultations with the German representative are at a critical stage in the negotiations.

Hanegbi: Barghouti will not be released Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said Tuesday that Israel will not free Barghouti.

"No one will release this man," Hanegbi told Israel Radio, referring to Barghouti. "He is an arch-murderer."

Hanegbi's remarks came one day after an Israeli security source was quoted as saying that a deal involving hundreds of prisoners, mainly Palestinians, was "in the making, with the definite possibility Barghouti will be included."

"The State of Israel filed a very, very serious indictment against Marwan Barghouti. He was charged with personal responsibility in the brutal murders of dozens of Israelis and the wounding of hundreds," Hanegbi said, adding that Barghouti's trial would continue, and if convicted, the former leader of the militant Fatah-Tanzim militia could be expected to serve "dozens of years behind bars."

Earlier this week, a Palestinian source closely associated with the German mediator brokering the deal said that Israel agreed in principle to release about 400 Arab prisoners, including at least 200 Palestinians.

"A deal is advancing but to be finalized it would have to be brought before [Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's] security cabinet first for authorization. We are not there yet," said the security source, who asked not to be named.

Israel is examining the possibility of sending into temporary or permanent exile Palestinian prisoners expected to be released in the prisoner exchange deal originally disclosed by Hezbollah.

Prisoner group leaders in Israeli jails have expressed agreement in principle to the proposal as long as the expulsion is temporary.

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.

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