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Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
September 30

HEADLINE: High Court delays ruling that could halt prisoner swap


The High Court of Justice on Tuesday postponed for 10 days a ruling that could seal the fate on the prisoner deal, leaving the momentous decision over whether Lebanese militant Mustapha Dirani could be included in a swap for Israelis for until October 9th.

Under the deal currently being negotiated, Israel would reportedly trade Dirani, Sheikh Karim Obeid, and Lebanese, Jordanian, Egyptian, Syrian and Palestinian prisoners for civilian Elchanan Tannenbaum, and the bodies of three soldiers kidnapped in October 2000.

According to Palestinian sources in contact with Hezbollah, Dirani's exclusion would "sabotage" the entire deal.

The family of Lt. Col. Ron Arad, downed over Lebanon in 1986, petitioned the High Court for an interim injection against using Dirani in the swap, currently being negotiated between Israel and Hezbollah in Germany.

The Arad family argued that Dirani, who captured and held Arad for 18 months before reportedly "selling him" to Iran, is too valuable a bargaining chip to be offered without gleaning any information on Arad. Israel had snatched him from Lebanon specifically as a bargaining chip for Arad.

But according to Fatah leader and PLC deputy Kadura Fares, who has advised Hezbollah over possible prisoners lists, said that "without Dirani there is no deal."

While Nassrallah touts himself as one of the few Arab leaders able to extract anything from Israel, he has come under fire from his own group of late for dawdling on the return of Dirani, Obeid and the remains of other Hezbollah fighters killed by Israel.

Negotiations between Israel and Hezbollah temporarily stalled this week when Hezbollah increased its demands on Israel for the prisoner swap, to the frustration of the Israeli negotiators and the German mediators.

Hezbollah boasted weeks ago that the deal could be sealed in ten days. Yet apparently Nasrallah inflated his demands to include Jordanian, and most problematically for Israel, Israeli Arabs prisoners as well.

His demands came as public statements to the Lebanese press, and were construed by Israeli negotiators as extra-negotiation haggling. Despite the increasing friction, Israel and Hezbollah resumed negotiations today under the mediation of German security chief Ernst Urlau.

Among Arab Israelis in question are the leader of the Islamic Movement northern branch Sheikh Ra'ed Salah, including four others, who are currently being tried for funding terrorist groups. Israel considers their release a red line, which it will not cross.

Until this point, Fares said that negotiations had plodded forward at a steady rate. Israel and Hezbollah had agreed on the number of prisoners to be released. "But the hardest part of negotiations is finalizing the list of prisoners, this will take some time," he said.

Israeli spokesmen are saying that they refuse to terrorists with blood on their hands. For their part, the Palestinians are demanding that the most veteran prisoners, those who have served 20 years or more in Israeli prison, top the list.

Next are Palestinian prisoners with political background, like Tanzim boss Marwan Barghouti, currently standing trial for the murder of 26 Israelis. Israel has denied that Barghouti appears on the any list.

Fares added that while Hezbollah prefers to keep the issue of the various hostages separate it is likely to extract more from Israel that way it might "promise to help Israel learn more about the fate of Ron Arad."

But Hezbollah has a rich history of toying with the minds of Israelis, and those involved in prior negotiations remain skeptical that Hezbollah will follow through with its promise.

Little concrete information has trickled in to Israel regarding Arad's fate. Last year, the army appointed retired judge Eliahu Winograd to investigate all the intelligence information complied by government branches over the years to determine how to continue dealing with Arad's disappearance.

Last month, Winograd presented his report to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who transferred it to Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Parts of the contents were leaked to the media, which reported that the committee had recommended continuing to act on the assumption that Arad was alive.

Since then the Arad family has played an increasingly prominent role in trying to reshape the negotiations to include the missing navigator. On Thursday, Arad family attorney, Eliad Shraga, petitioned the High Court demanding that the family be given the report before Dirani, who has been in Israeli hands since 1994, traded in the deal.

On Friday, the state informed the court that it would hand over the Winograd Report to the Arad family by the end of the week, after army censors blanked ut information they considered too sensitive to be published.

The state added that it was very unlikely the prisoner exchange would go through before the family got hold of the report.

Justice Eliahu Mazza wrote that if there were any changes in the government s timetable, the hearing on the petition would be moved up. Shraga told reporters afterwards that the petition would have been unnecessary had the government given the report to the Arad family a month ago. He said he was now afraid they would receive it just before the release was implemented and would not have time to petition the High Court.

Despite the road blocks Fares remained partially optimistic. "This is not Oslo, where all the meaningful details are left for the end. This time both sides will have to fulfill the deal, before signing it."

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