Israel agrees to prisoner swap with Hizbollah

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The Independent Online

Israel yesterday agreed a prisoner exchange with the Hizbollah militia in which Israel will release several hundred Arab prisoners and Hizbollah will release one Israeli businessman, and return the bodies of three kidnapped soldiers.

Israel yesterday agreed a prisoner exchange with the Hizbollah militia in which Israel will release several hundred Arab prisoners and Hizbollah will release one Israeli businessman, and return the bodies of three kidnapped soldiers.

The deal was announced yesterday by the German government, which was acting as mediator, and confirmed by the Lebanese group.

Ernst Uhrlau, the German mediator, said the exchange would happen within a week, and a lawyer for two Lebanese prisoners said he expected it to happen by Tuesday. But after months of on-again, off-again negotiations, those waiting for the release of their loved ones on both sides will not believe it until they see it.

Under the terms, Hizbollah will release Elhanan Tennenbaum, an Israeli businessman kidnapped in 2000, and return the bodies of three Israeli soldiers abducted in Shebaa, a border area of south Lebanon, the same year.

Israel will release 400 Palestinians, 23 Lebanese and 12 others from Syria, Sudan, Morocco and Libya.

The deal will be seen as a major success for Hizbollah. It has been criticised in Israel because it could be seen by Palestinians as evidence that force works. Where negotiations under the brief Palestinian premiership of Abu Mazen last year failed to secure Palestinian prisoner releases, Hizbollah's hard line will have succeeded.

But Israelis are sensitive to Jewish religious beliefs on redeeming captives, which also explains why Israel is prepared to release so many prisoners. The deal has also been criticised because of allegations that Mr Tenenbaum had put himself at risk.

Israel has refused to release Samir Qantar, a key prisoner Hizbollah was demanding, until the group provides information on the fate of Ron Arad, an Israeli airman who went missing in action over Lebanon in 1986. There are hopes this may be agreed in a second exchange.

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