Israeli law will allow seizure of 'hostages'

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The Independent Online

Israel's security cabinet decided yesterday to initiate a sweeping new law designed to give the government the legal right to detain those it deems "illegal fighters", such as Hizbollah guerrillas, as negotiating pawns.

The decision came in response to last week's ruling by the Supreme Court that the state could no longer continue to hold a group of Lebanese prisoners as "bargaining chips" to press for the release ofmissing or captured Israeliservicemen.

But the cabinet members backed away from moves to rush a new law through parliament within 24 hours, which would have enabled them to block the release of 13 Lebanese prisoners who are due to be freed today after more than a decade in custody.

The proposed law was announced in a vaguely worded statement from the Prime Minister's office after yesterday's meeting, which was called by Ehud Barak amid outcry over the Supreme Court decision. The statement said the proposed legislation would comply with international law and the ruling. It would "permit the holding of 'illegal fighters'... such as members of Hizbollah, by methods other than administrative detention".

But there was scepticism among human rights activists, who have long criticised Israel over hostage-taking. They suspect the move is a means of providing the Defence Minister - at present, Mr Barak himself - with new legal powers for holding hostages.

"There is no way that a law which legalises the holding of hostages can conform to international standards," an Amnesty spokesman said.

Hostage-taking by a government is a violation of the Geneva Convention. Zvi Rish, the Israeli lawyer representing the Lebanese hostages, said: "It is not proper in a democraticsociety to have such legislation. Israel will be the only country in the world which will permit itself by law to hold hostages. That can be the only meaning of such a law - to hold hostages."

Chief targets of the proposed new law are Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, an Islamic cleric, and Mustapha Dirani, a militia official, who were abducted from Lebanon by Israeli commandos in 1989 and 1994 respectively and have since been held in "administrative detention" without charge or trial.

The cabinet may also have been preparing the ground for holding on to at least some of the scores of Lebanese in Khiam prison, under the control of the South Lebanon Army, in Israel's occupation zone.

Israel has admitted that Sheikh Obeid and Mr Dirani are held as bargaining chips to press for the release of its missing servicemen, notably the airman Ron Arad. Ignoring calls from international human rights groups to release the two, alongside the 13 other hostages,today, the security cabinet said it would make a "special effort to guarantee" their continueddetention. The security cabinet also decided categorically that the 13 Lebanese would be freed.

They are due to return to Lebanon today, although there were reports in the Israeli media last night that their release will be delayed for a third time, because of a last-minute legal application by the Arad family. The timing reflects the Israeli government's anxiety to get what it regards as unsavoury business over and done with, just when the country is closing down for Passover and, for once, paying little attention to politics.