Israelis and Hizbollah get set for a 'body swap'

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The Independent Online
ROBERT FISK

Beirut

It's body-swap time again. The living for the dead, as is so often the case in Lebanon. And if the very cold facts of this sinister trade - enunciated again yesterday by the leader of the pro-Iranian Hizbollah - demands that the exchange of two dead Israelis and 19 living pro-Israeli militiamen for 200 Lebanese Shias imprisoned by the Israelis should be taken seriously, the frequency with which such offers are made suggests otherwise.

This is not the first time the two sides have offered to exchange bodies; nor will it be the last.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of the Hizbollah, said in Beirut yesterday that his movement did not hold the only Israeli servicemen still believed to be alive - Ron Arad, an airman shot down as he bombed the Palestinian camp of Ein el-Helwe in southern Lebanon in 1986 - but that two dead Israeli soldiers and 19 members of the proxy South Lebanon Army were in Hizbollah's hands. "We are ready to help find a settlement for the issue of the prisoners we have and the prisoners held by Israel's militia commander Antoine Lahd," he said.

Furthermore, any swap should include the return to Lebanon of Sheikh Abdul Karim Obeid, a Shia cleric kidnapped by Israel in 1989 (whose abduction led to the announcement by Shia kidnappers that they had hanged the American UN Colonel William Higgins) and Mustafa Dirani, a Hizbollah official kidnapped by Israeli forces in Lebanon two years ago.

The two dead Israeli soldiers, Rahamim Alsheikh and Yossi Fink - who was born in Manchester - were captured by Hizbollah during an attack on Israeli occupation forces in southern Lebanon on 17 February 1986. Despite claims that this was the first time they had been declared dead by the Hizbollah, Israel long ago concluded that at least one of them was killed in the ambush and the other probably died of his wounds.

The Hizbollah had been publicising their desire for a prisoner swap for three days; on Thursday, they released three Israeli-trained SLA militiamen just five days after the Israelis released 32 prisoners from Khiam. Of the three, Maurice Georges Abu Malhab, was 19 when he was captured 10 years ago and has spent a decade in a Hizbollah cell. He claimed to have converted to Islam during his detention. Released in a Hizbollah office decked out with portraits of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and President Ali Khamanei of Iran, his first question to his mother was whether she had found a girl for him to marry. Some of the Khiam prisoners have been held for up to 15 years without trial by the Israelis.

The Israelis and the Hizbollah, meanwhile, have continued their war in southern Lebanon, with five air attacks staged by the Israelis on Thursday against the Hizbollah-held Iqlim al-Tofah area. Israeli jets fired at least 10 rockets at Lebanese villages without apparently causing any casualties. It was the third raid this year and the 34th in 13 months. There have been literally countless thousands of such raids by Israeli planes against Palestinians and then Hizbollah guerrillas since the early 1970s - causing thousands of civilian dead - in a vain attempt to "destroy terrorism".

Earlier this week, a Palestinian "Islamist" had flown a home-made aircraft over the Israeli-occupied zone in an apparent attempt to stage a suicide bombing on an Israeli barracks inside Lebanon. The single-engine plane, which had reportedly taken local Shias a year to build out of wood and a car engine, was shot down by an Israeli missile near the village of Majdel Silm. The unidentified pilot died when it plunged into a wadi.

The Israelis blamed the Hizbollah for this unprecedented attack - the Hizbollah denied it - and the aerial "martyr" was later claimed by a telephone caller for the "Palestinian Islamic Revolutionary Army". No one had heard of such a group and the finger of suspicion points to the Hizbollah whose technology has never extended into aerodynamics.

Israel and the Hizbollah began swapping prisoners in 1985 when Lebanese held without trial - and against international law - across the border in Israel were exchanged for American hostages taken from a TWA jet hijacked to Beirut airport. In 1991, more than a dozen Hizbollah men were released by the Israelis from Khiam in part-exchange for the freeing of Westerners kidnapped in Lebanon, a deal arranged by the United Nations.

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