Barak may alter law to keep Arab prisoners in jail

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The Independent Online

The Israeli Prime Minister is on a collision course with his country's highest judicial body, the Supreme Court, over the fate of a group of Lebanese men who have been held as hostages by Israel for up to 15 years, some without charge or trial.

Ehud Barak has called a cabinet meeting for today to discuss whether to circumvent the ruling last week that Israel had no right to hold the hostages in order to pressure Lebanon over missing Israeli servicemen.

Thirteen Lebanese were to have been freed yesterday, but their release was postponed for the second time in less than a week. The glitch appears to have been caused by a last-minute appeal to the court by an Israeli right-wing group to block the release. It failed.

To the horror of human rights activists, Mr Barak revealed yesterday that he was leaning towards supporting a new law that would allow the Israeli government, rather than the judiciary, to determine what happens to such prisoners.

The men have been held by Israel in flagrant violation of international law. Israel makes no secret of the fact that the men are kept as human currency to be used in negotiations over missing Israeli servicemen.

An Israeli government official said the Lebanese would finally be freed by tomorrow. However today's cabinet meeting could lead to more delays.

Mr Barak's office said yesterday the possible new legislation would allow the executive branch to detain enemy fighters "for the purpose of redeeming Israeli prisoners of war". In fact, there is little evidence that the Lebanese hostages were enemy fighters. They mostly comprise young Shia Muslims who were still in their teens when they were abducted in Lebanon by militias or Israeli troops.

Initially, Mr Barak indicated he would abide by the ruling. But the outcry against it - combined, no doubt, with Mr Barak's falling ratings - has led him to reconsider.

The odds are that any new law would eventually be struck down by the Supreme Court.

But none of this bodes well for the next hurdle facing human rights organisations - the fight to get Israel to assume responsibility for the 160 Lebanese prisoners held by the Israeli-controlled South Lebanon Army within the walls of the notorious Khiam prison inside Israel's occupation zone.

Yesterday's developments follow Wednesday's decision by the Supreme Court which stated that the Israeli military had no grounds to continue holding the Lebanese in so-called "administrative detention" as they do not constitute a threat to national security.

Although the judgement was in response to a petition from only eight of the men, the government decided that it applied to all but two being held in Israel - Mustafa Dirani, a former official with the Amal militia, and Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, a Hizbollah cleric.

Israel regards the latter two as powerful cards - and is highly unlikely to heed a demand from Amnesty that they, too, should be freed because their detention is also unlawful.

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