Hizbullah and Israel seal controversial prisoner swap

Four Israelis will be exchanged for more than 400 Arab detainees, Israel confirmed sunday.

The conclusion of a German-brokered deal to swap four Israelis kidnapped by the Hizbullah organization for hundreds of Arab detainees held in Israel will be perceived as an important victory for the Lebanese resistance group, analysts say.

Although reviled by Israel as an implacable terrorist enemy, Hizbullah has scored a propaganda coup in forcing the Israeli government to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, a feat even the Palestinian Authority, Israel's erstwhile negotiating partner, was unable to achieve.

"This is not a popular deal with the Palestinian leadership. And I'm sure that many Arab states will be asking why Israel gave Hizbullah this gift," says Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst. "The implicit message is that if you keep on attacking us, if you bomb us enough times, we will deal with you."

The negotiations aroused considerable controversy in Israel. Critics argued that Israel should not negotiate with a "terrorist" organization bent on Israel's destruction. But Israel attaches great moral importance to recovering its citizens from enemy hands.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said sunday that Israel had made a "correct, moral, and responsible decision" in agreeing to the prisoner exchange. "Israel has proved again that it acts according to the important value of returning its sons home," he said.

After three years of painstaking on-off talks between the two bitter enemies, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hizbullah, confirmed sunday that a two-phase deal had been reached in which an Israeli businessman and three soldiers will be exchanged for Lebanese, Palestinian and other Arab detainees held in Israeli jails.

He said that 23 Lebanese detainees will be flown from Israel to Germany on Thursday and exchanged for the four Israelis. The three soldiers were abducted by Hizbullah fighters in October 2000. Israel believes the three soldiers are dead. Elhanan Tennenbaum, an Israeli businessman, was kidnapped the same month and is thought to be in poor health.

Israel also has agreed to free 400 Palestinian prisoners, allowing them to return to their homes in the West Bank and Gaza, along with 12 Arabs from Syria, Morocco, Sudan and Libya. The second phase of the deal will see the creation of committees to examine the fates of Ron Arad, an Israeli airman who disappeared after his plane crashed over Lebanon in 1986, and of four Iranian diplomats who went missing in Beirut in 1982. If Mr. Arad's whereabouts is resolved, further Palestinian and Arab detainees will be released along with Samir Qantar, a Lebanese who is serving a 542-year jail sentence for killing four Israelis in 1979.

Any hopes harbored by Israel that the imminent release of the Lebanese detainees will weaken Hizbullah's militancy are unlikely to be fulfilled, says Nizar Hamzeh, a professor of politics at the American University of Beirut.

"The resistance is under a new process of indoctrination," he says. "The resistance is not just waiting for orders to carry out operations. Now its mission is to wait, stay firm, watch, and respond to any Israeli attacks. As long as there is an absence of comprehensive peace in the region and as long as Israel is a threat to Lebanon, Hizbullah is watching the Israeli border."

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