Israel and Hizbollah swap their dead

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The Independent Online
The Israeli dead went home in the morning, in steel coffins reverently placed on a German military aircraft for the brief flight to Tel Aviv.

The Hizbollah dead came home in cheap wooden boxes, bouncing in the back of 17 construction lorries, to be pushed amid screams of grief into more than 100 black, white and brown hearses that were parked amid the hot olive groves of southern Lebanon.

In a country where the dead always come first, it was probably inevitable that the living prisoners - 17 members of Israel's proxy militia in southern Lebanon, and 45 inmates of the notorious, Israeli-run Khiam jail - were still waiting to be liberated at dusk.

There were family mourners in Israel for Rahamin Al-Sheikh and Yosef Fink, the two Israeli soldiers wounded and captured in a Hizbollah ambush inside Lebanon in 1986, both of whom died in captivity. And there were thousands of Hizbollah men and grieving families for the 123 "martyrs" when their bodies were unloaded from the trucks, some youths even fighting each other in their rage on top of the coffins.

Many of the dead were killed in Hizbollah's human-wave attacks on Israeli occupation troops in the late 1980s, though others had been killed recently enough for the mourners to cover their faces with handkerchiefs as the trucks drove past.

If there was grief in both Israel and Lebanon, there was at least some triumph for the German security services who - of all people - had brought about this extraordinary, if gruesome, body-swap. The close relationship between Bernd Schmidbauer, Chancellor Kohl's security adviser, and the heads of the Iranian secret service - a connection condemned by Israel last year - was found to be of use by the Israelis after all. It enabled Mr Schmidbauer to bring Iranian and Syrian intelligence authorities together in Damascus before confirming the exchange of bodies and prisoners could go ahead.

After French intervention during Israel's April bombardment of Lebanon, the German initiative has again brought a European Union nation into Middle East peace-making, in however minor a role.

Mr Schmidbauer's own personal role is also intriguing. In 1992, he was instrumental in freeing two German hostages, Heinrich Struebig and Thomas Kempner, who had been kidnapped by the family of a man imprisoned in Germany for hijacking an American TWA jet to Beirut in 1985. Again, Mr Schmidbauer used Iranian intelligence officers to complete the releases after Syria gave its consent to the negotiations.

It may not have been by chance that an Iranian television crew was filming the convoy of lorries as it carried the Hizbollah dead across the Israeli occupation line yesterday afternoon.

But the exchanges were not without potentially grave problems. The 45 prisoners from Khiam - some of whom had been held for more than 10 years without trial, and three of whom were women - were kept waiting in buses through the midday heat because the Israelis found that it was, in the words of one officer, "taking longer than we thought" to transfer 123 coffins from Israeli lorries to trucks hired by the Red Cross. The corpses had been interred in northern Israel.

Then the Red Cross, which had earlier supervised the removal of the two Israeli bodies from the Bir al-Abed suburb of the capital to Beirut airport, suddenly discovered that the 17 members of the Israeli-paid "South Lebanon Army" who were to be sent back to Israel's occupation zone didn't want to return.

They sat in the Red Cross cars just west of the front lines, staring at the quizzical - and not entirely friendly - Hizbollah men looking at them intently through the vehicle windows, two of them in tears.

All said they wanted to remain in Beirut; the SLA had stated a few hours earlier that the prisoners had been brainwashed by the Hizbollah, a claim which lost none of its force when Hizbollah's own television station showed each of the 17 prisoners kissing the forehead of the Hizbollah's general secretary, Sayed Hasan Nasrallah.

The Red Cross resolved the problem by allowing the SLA prisoners to travel, three at a time, to their former colleagues on the Israeli lines, and to announce whether or not they wished to go back to their militia units or stay in Beirut.

Back in the olive fields, there were prayers over the plywood coffins in a clearing ringed by black flags and weeping women, interrupted only by the tinkling of dozens of mobile telephones in the hands of the still- living Hizbollah men.