Copyright 2004 Jerusalem Post
HEADLINE: Cabinet to discuss prisoner exchange with Hizbullah
BYLINE: MATTHEW GUTMAN
IThe cabinet will discuss Sunday morning the prisoner exchange deal scheduled to take place between Israel and the Hizbullah in Germany on Thursday.
Israel and Hizbullah wrapped up months of laborious negotiations Saturday agreeing to swap civilian Elhanan Tannenbaum and the remains of St.-Sgts. Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan, and Omar Sawayid for 435 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners, German and Israeli sources confirmed Saturday night.
Senior Israeli negotiator Maj.-Gen. Ilan Biran will brief the ministers regarding details of the deal.
The coffins of the three soldiers will be brought to Israel in a full military ceremony at Ben Gurion International Airport. Tennenbaum's release will not be part of the ceremony, Israel Radio reported.
Adi Avitan's father, Yakov, told Israel Radio he was informed of the deal's closure by IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Moshe Ya'alon. "We just want this [swap] to actually happen. Only when our boys land in Israel, will we be able to say: That's it, it's all over now." The exchange could take place as early as Thursday, said a German source, but could take as long as a week to ten days. German military transport planes are to fly the remains of the three Israeli soldiers and Tannenbaum to Frankfurt, Germany and from there to Israel, according to the sources. Likewise all 435 prisoners are to be flown to Frankfurt and then on to Lebanon.
"With this agreement, Israel and Hizbullah have achieved a breakthrough in seeking to soothe one of the most painful consequences of the Middle East conflict," Germany said in a statement.
The Prime Minister's office issued a formal statement Saturday night acknowledging that the deal, following months of negotiations and political debate, has been finalized for the release of Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of the three IDF soldiers. The government statement expresses gratitude to the German government for its mediating efforts. "In exchange for the return of the kidnapped Israelis the State of Israel will release prisoners from their places of detention in Israeli territory," the statement from the Prime Minister's Office said.
Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah will hold a press conference Sunday detailing the prisoner exchange deal, Hizbullah's Al-Manar TV station reported. Nasrallah is expected to tell reporters that Samir Kuntar,Haran family murderer will be released in the following months. On Saturday night, Israel Channel 10 reported that Nasrallah told Kuntar's family that Samir would be released 22nd of April, 2004.
The deal, closed about two weeks ago, caps months of tortuous haggling between the two sides, accusations of leaks meant to pressure one side or the other, and threats to quit the negotiations.
The deal, dubbed "an understanding in humanitarian issues," is being characterized as only "partial," and leaves two loose threads: the fates of Samir Kuntar, the imprisoned murderer of three members of the Harran family, and missing IAF navigator Lt. Col. Ron Arad.
In exchange for the three soldier's remains and Tannenbaum Israel will release over 400 prisoners, among them Mustafa Dirani, who captured, held, and then apparently sold missing IAF navigator Lt. Col. Ron Arad. Dirani was himself abducted from Lebanon in 1994 and influential former Hizbullah leader Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid was taken in 1989. The Arad family have declined comment on the deal, which excludes Arad. Ever since the deal reached its final stages, the Arad family have been waging a legal battle to scuttle it and keep Dirani in Israel.
Ernest Uhrlau, the German intermediary involved in negotiations between Israel and Hizbullah held a press conference with a select group of reporters in Germany on Saturday to announce the deal's finalization. Amid fears that leaks could torpedo the agreement, Israel and Hizbullah clamped a total news blackout on the matter until Uhrlau's Saturday afternoon announcement. A spokesman for Uhrlau said Germany would not stop seeking information about Ron Arad.
The official German Protocol said that in exchange for the remains of the three soldiers and Tannenbaum, Israel is to release 23 Lebanese, five Syrian, three Moroccan, three Sudanese and one Libyan prisoner. It also listed the names of 400 Palestinians prisoners, none with blood on his hands, who are to be released into the West Bank and Gaza.
In addition, the exhaustive declaration indicates that Israel must release German citizen Steven Smyrik, a 32 year old Hizbullah agent arrested in Tel Aviv in 1998 while planning a terrorist attack against the Israeli Embassy in Bonn.
Israel is also to clear up the fate of 24 Lebanese missing since Israel 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and deliver the remains of 59 Lebanese killed fighting the IDF in the Israeli security zone in southern Lebanon. The bodies are currently interred in several cemeteries in the north and are to be repatriated to Lebanon with the help of the International Committee Red Cross, said ICRC officials.
Israel will also give the Lebanese detailed maps of the minefields it planted in southern Lebanon.
The deal is being characterized as only "partial." Samir Kuntar, the head of a Lebanon-based Palestinian terrorist squad responsible for the deaths of Danny Haran, his daughters Einat and Yael and policeman Eliahu Shahar in a 1979 attack in Nahariya, will not be among the prisoners released, said the German sources.
Kuntar will be "released from Israeli prison to Lebanon without delay as soon as the ongoing negotiations in his case have been successfully finished," states the protocol.
As concrete as the first section of the Understanding is, its second section is nebulous. "Committees" are to be "built immediately by all sides concerned," that will work to investigate and clear up the fate of Arad and four missing Iranians diplomats believed to have been killed by Christian militias in Lebanon. Iran has maintained that Israel has misled it on the whereabouts of the diplomats' remains.
Kuntar's release has been increasingly tied to that of Ron Arad, and it is doubtful, say security sources, that Kuntar - sentence to 574 years imprisonment for murdering the three members of the Haran family - will step foot in Lebanon without "quality," information about Arad's fate.
Negotiations screeched to a halt in late November, after Israel announced that it would not release Kuntar. Hizbullah demanded the release of all Lebanese prisoners held by Israel. Those close to the negotiations at the time has said that in late November the deal was just days from being sealed.
The past few months of negotiations have sparked a furious public debate regarding the deal, ranging between demands to free the abductees at all costs and end their families' suffering, to protests against the desertion of Arad and the encouragement of Hizbullah kidnap operations. The government itself ended up approving the deal by one vote. Social Affairs Minister Zvulun Orlev, who then voted against the deal, issued a statement Saturday saying that although he didn't approve of the deal then, now that it's been finalized he stands behind it.
Nasrallah: Wrap up the deal
Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah traveled to Tehran some ten days ago, where he met the head of Iranian intelligence. The content of the talks was unclear, yet the tenor from the Iranian side, according to German sources, was clear: Wrap up the deal, but if you must include information about Arad, leave us out.
Nasrallah's popularity in recent months first spiked and then flagged when his efforts to close the deal with Israel ran into dead ends. First the talks foundered on the issue of the number of prisoners, then their names, and affiliations. Nasrallah had demanded that certain killers be released while Israel vowed that no one "with blood on their hands," - like Samir Kuntar - would go free.
But in the past two months Nasrallah put aside his brinksmanship while Israel plugged the leaks that has so irked the Germans. Even some of the families - whose statements had been splashed into headlines - have refused to speak in recent days.
Pressure from Lebanese prisoners' families has mounted on the Hizbullah leader as his promises to "bring the boys home," by the end of Ramadan fell through.
Last month Israel received a sample of what was thought to be a bone fragment from Arad. DNA sampling apparently indicated that it not match Arad's DNA. Then a few days ago another piece of bone was delivered to Israel.
The Lebanese newspaper Al-Mustaqbal reported last weekend that Uhrlau visited Beirut recently, and held long meetings with senior Hezbollah officials. Sources following the negotiations told the paper that the sides had decided to continue negotiations in an effort to resolve the problem pertaining to Kuntar.
The paper also reported that Uhrlau informed Israel and Hezbollah that he was not interested in ending his mediation efforts, because "ending the initiative at such a sensitive time could lead to negative implications." According to German sources it was not Uhrlau but one of his deputies, a senior officer at the Federal Intelligence Service [BND] that has been leading the day to day negotiations.
Zvi Rish, the Israeli lawyer for the Lebanese prisoners held in Israel, told The Associated Press Saturday that the prisoner exchange will take place Tuesday.
Countering the notion among many in the government that the exchange was too costly, Danny Eisen, Chairman of the International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers, applauded the move. "The moral strength of the state of Israel has been to rescue its captured and missing men. had Israel been unwilling to pursue this exchange, the long term losses in terms of sacrificing Israel's moral core would have outweighed any short term gains," he said.
Return to Archive