Israel release Lebanese prisoners

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The Independent Online

At the behest of the Supreme Court, Israel has reluctantly released 13 Lebanese prisoners it had held for more than a decade as bargaining chips in trying to secure the return of a missing Israeli airman.

The release capped a week of anguished debate in the Jewish state over whether all means are permissible to secure the return of missing Israeli airmen.

In a dramatic finish, the family of missing navigator Ron Arad appealed to the Supreme Court, seeking to block the release at the last minute.

Arad's mother, Batya, pleaded with the judges not to abandon her son who has been held for 4,969 days. "Look me straight in the eyes," she said, on the verge of tears. "What would you do if your son or grandson were in the same situation?"

However, Chief Justice Aharon Barak said that while the court understood hers pain, it had to uphold the law. The government is doing all it can to bring back the MIA, Barak said, but that "this has to be done within the framework of the law."

After the court ruled, the blindfolded and handcuffed prisoners were driven from an army base to the Fatima Gate, an Israeli-Lebanese border crossing, where they were transferred to a bus of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The formal handover was to take place at a Lebanese army checkpoint at Kfar Tibnit, a village on the northern edge of the Israel-occupied zone in south Lebanon.

Relatives have been eagerly waiting at Kfar Tibnit for several days. The checkpoint, one of several crossing points linking the Israeli-occupied zone with the rest of Lebanon, was packed with about 2,000 people, including guerrilla supporters who carried flags of the Hezbollah and Amal groups as well as Lebanese flags.

The Israeli Supreme Court had ordered the release of the prisoners last week, ruling that they cannot be held as "bargaining chips" in efforts to return Israeli nationals. But the release was delayed by another petition - which was thrown out on Monday - and government attempts to quickly draft legislation to keep them imprisoned.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's Cabinet backed down from enacting the emergency bill, saying that it will instead introduce legislation to ensure that two additional prisoners, both affiliated with Lebanese guerrilla groups, would continue to be held in Israel.

The government now says that releasing Mustafa Dirani, the Amal guerrilla group's security chief and Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, spiritual leader of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah organization, would threaten Israel's security. Both groups are battling Israel in south Lebanon.

Israel is formally at war with Lebanon and engages guerrilla groups in a border zone it occupies there to protect its frontier towns.

The 13 were taken prisoner in Lebanon, beginning in 1986, during roundups of sympathisers of guerrilla organisations. Some of them were teenagers at the time. Many served sentences, but were kept in custody after their sentences ran out.

Security officials have said that they never posed an actual threat to Israeli security but were meant to be used to negotiate the return Arad and others who share his plight.

Arad was captured by Lebanese guerrillas after his plane was shot down in 1986, and many Israelis believe he is still alive. Another three MIAs have been missing since 1983.

Obeid, seized in 1986, and Dirani, captured in 1994, were to remain in detention while their case is considered. The next hearing before a Tel Aviv District court is set for May 8.