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Israel's prisoner swap with Hezbollah: too risky?

Israel's cabinet approved a controversial prisoner swap of 'terrorists' to recover two soldiers abducted in 2006.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 2008

The swap: Posters of Samir Qantar, a prisoner in Israel, are carried in Lebanon.

Ali Hashisho/Reuters

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Tel Aviv

In an epilogue to the Lebanon war two summers ago, Israel's cabinet on Sunday approved a prisoner swap with Hezbollah to recover two soldiers whose kidnapping along the Lebanese border sparked six weeks of cross-border fighting.

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The deal involves trading Samir Quntar – a Lebanese member of a Palestinian militant group responsible for the killing of an Israeli father and daughter in a 1979 terrorist attack – for Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who were abducted in 2006 and have probably been killed, say Israeli officials.

The swap is stirring a heated debate among Israelis about the trade-off between the obligations of the government to families and soldiers and the risk of encouraging more kidnappings by paying an "inflated" price to get soldiers back.

The same issues resonate in Israel's discussion of the ongoing talks to free Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit – who Israeli officials suspect is alive – and is being held by Hamas, a Palestinian militant group.

"What we have is a clash of morality," says Michael Oren, a military historian and the author of "Six Days of War."

"Where is the greater injustice? In not securing the release of Goldwasser, Regev, or in releasing Palestinian and Lebanese terrorists who have killed Israelis and may kill more of them in the future?" he asks.

The release of Mr. Goldwasser and Mr. Regev, one of the planks of the truce between Hezbollah and Israel outlined in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, has been the focus of covert negotiations mediated by German go-betweens.

Despite the reported opposition by Israel's secret service agencies, Israel's cabinet approved the trade by a 22-to-0 vote with three abstentions Sunday. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert admitted he deliberated through weeks of indecision.

"Our enemies, Hezbollah, tried every possible manipulation of Israeli society's deepest and most exposed feelings in order to influence the mood here also in order to exploit Israeli society's special moral sensitivity so as to prevent us from achieving a quick result on correct and balanced terms appropriate for such issues," he said.

"The conclusions that I have drawn are not free of doubts and dilemmas that we will have to deal with for many years to come."

In addition to Mr. Quntar, Israel agreed to release four other militants, the bodies of dozens of Lebanese gunman, information on the disappearance of four Iranian diplomats to the UN, and an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners at a later date.