Israel cabinet okays prisoner exchange with Hezbollah

Israel Materials 29 June 2008 23:02 (UTC +04:00)

Hours after Israel's cabinet approved a prisoner exchange deal with Lebanon's Hezbollah, the family of Lebanon's longest held prisoner in Israel, Samir Kuntar, welcomed the move.

"We were glued to the television set waiting for this decision and now I can say, I never thought my son would be coming home again," Kuntar's mother Siham told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

"This will be a historic release," his brother Bassam said, thanking Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah for Kuntar's release. An senior Israeli official told dpa Sunday evening that the prisoner swap will take place within 10 to 14 days.

Nasrallah did not react immediately Sunday, but local television in Beirut quoted the chief of Hezbollah's executive council, Hashem Safieddine, as saying "what happened in the prisoners' issue is proof that the word of the resistance is most faithful, strongest and supreme."

The Kuntars, who live in a Druze village, 25 kilometers south-east of Beirut, were on Sunday being congratulated by relatives as news of the Israeli cabinet decision, which followed after a marathon debate Sunday, spread.

Kuntar is serving 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.

Under the deal, Israel will free Kuntar, in jail since 1979, along with four Lebanese prisoners and an unspecified number of Palestinians in return for Eldad Regev and Ehud (Udi) Goldwasser, two army reservists whose abduction during the July 12, 2006 cross-border raid sparked a ferocious 33-day war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Israeli Premier Ehud Olmert had urged ministers to support the exchange although he said the two Israeli soldiers were dead.

Some 22 Israeli ministers supported, and three opposed, the deal.

The cabinet decision clears the way for the German-mediated deal to go ahead, possibly within days.

Olmert told his cabinet the two soldiers, either having been killed when they were captured, or having died of their wounds shortly afterwards.

It was the first admission by the Israeli premier that Regev and Goldwasser were likely no longer alive. Hezbollah has permitted no sign of life from them since they were snatched.

"At the end of a long process, I have reached the conclusion that as the Israeli prime minister I must recommend that you approve the proposal which will bring an end to this painful affair, even at the painful price it requires us to pay," Olmert said during the cabinet meeting, according to a statement issued by his office.

Aside from agreeing to free a number of Palestinian prisoners, Israel has also agreed to to give information regarding the disappearance of Iranian diplomats in the 1990s.

Olmert said Regev and Goldwasser had likely been snatched precisely to bargain for the release of Kuntar, since Hezbollah knew it could not meet a previous commitment to provide information on the fate of Ron Arad, an Israel Air Force navigator whose plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986 and of whom all trace has since vanished.

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

Critics in Israel of the deal brokered by 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."

The heads of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, and of the Shin bet counter-terrorism agency, attended Sunday's meeting. They are understood to have opposed any prisoner swap, arguing that an exchange could prompt more kidnappings of Israelis to be used as bargaining chips to secure the release of jailed militants.

In a previous deal in 2004, Israel released 430 Lebanese and Arab prisoners in exchange for a civilian and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers, all of whom were snatched by Hezbollah in late 2000.