Israel may declare dead two soldiers missing in Lebanon

Israel Materials 24 June 2008 15:34 (UTC +04:00)

Israel may declare dead the two Israeli soldiers who were captured by Lebanon's Hezbollah in a cross-border raid two years ago, an indication that a long-awaited prisoners swap could be in trouble, reported dpa.

The Israeli government has ordered Chief Military Rabbi Avichai to decide whether to pronounce the two reserve soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, as "killed in action, but place of death unknown," a statement issued by military said.

The military rabbi is to make his decision based on intelligence information and Jewish religious law.

"The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) Chief Rabbi began the process, at the end of which he will determine the status of the kidnapped soldiers," the statement said.

Israeli media reported Tuesday that Israel until a few days ago was inclined to give a positive answer to the German-brokered deal on a prisoners swap with Hezbollah, which was all but sealed, but that it now considers cancelling because of several "unclarified issues."

They gave no details, but the heads of the Israel's Shin Bet internal security organization and the Mossad intelligence agency are said to be strongly opposed to the deal.

The deal is said to involve the release of Lebanese prisoner Samir Kuntar, four Hezbollah members caught in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war and the bodies of a number other fighters killed in the war, in exchange for Goldwasser and Regev.

The two Israeli soldiers, who were seriously injured in the July 2006 cross-border raid that sparked 33 days of devastating combat, are widely believed to be dead.

The Shin Bet are said to oppose the release of Kuntar without receiving information on the fate of missing Israeli air force navigator Ron Arad, whose plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986.

Kuntar serves multiple life-sentences for leading a 1979 infiltration into Israel from Lebanon, during which he and his men took hostage a family in the northern Israeli town of Nahariya and killed four Israelis, including a father and his four-year-old daughter.

Israel had thus far refused to include him in previous prisoners exchanges with Hezbollah, because it saw Kuntar as the main bargaining chip for obtaining information on Arad.

Critics in Israel of the deal brokered by United Nations-appointed mediator Gerhard Conrad have also expressed concern that releasing Kuntar, a high-profile prisoner who is regarded in Israel as a hard-core militant and ruthless killer, in exchange for two dead bodies would set a dangerous precedent and would be "too high a price."

Other reports have said that Hezbollah had given up on its demand to include Palestinian prisoners in the swap, but then changed its mind and insisted on their inclusion as well - a demand Israel has refused.

The exact reason for the last-minute delay in finalizing the deal however remains unclear.

The Israeli Ha'aretz daily nevertheless reported Tuesday that a majority of ministers in the Israeli cabinet is likely to support the prisoners swap.

The reported delay comes after Lebanese security officials announced earlier this month that the swap could take place between last Friday and this Wednesday.