Israel and the Lebanese movement Hizbullah Monday exchanged the body of an Israeli civilian for a prisoner and the bodies of two Hizbullah guerrillas. The move, the first of its kind since the 34-day war between the two parties last summer, raised speculation that this could be part of a bigger deal that would bring back two Israeli soldiers whose capture sparked that conflict.
The swap occurred under the aegis of the UN, with negotiations between Israel and Hizbullah conducted through a UN-appointed German mediator, Ernst Uhrla, reports the British Broadcasting Corp. The exchange, it said, occurred in a media blackout.
Lebanese troops kept journalists and civilians away from the border area ahead of the exchange on Monday, but an Israeli military vehicle was seen crossing into the demilitarized zone around sundown and returning shortly afterwards.
Two Red Cross ambulances also drove into the zone near the Israeli border, apparently to receive the Lebanese prisoner and the remains of the two Hezbollah fighters.
Israeli journalists were also unable to report the exchange, as the country's military censor imposed a day-long blackout.
Once it was lifted, Israel reported that Hezbollah had handed over the body of (Gabriel) Dwait, an immigrant from Ethiopia whose body washed up on the Lebanese coast after he drowned.
The Independent (London) reports that Israel's recovery of the civilian "was said by Ehud Olmert's office to have been agreed 'in the framework' of negotiations over the release of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, the two Israeli reservists whose capture in July 2006 triggered the war."
However, the fate of the two soldiers is still unknown. The Daily Telegraph (London) reports that an Arabic newspaper has suggested they could have been transferred to Iran.
Quoting a senior Iranian official, Asharq al-Awsat said that Ehud Goldwasser, 31, and Eldad Regev, 26, could be freed as part of a prisoner swap brokered by Germany.
There was no official confirmation of the report although German and Italian diplomats are known to have tried to broker their release after they were taken in July 2006.
An Israeli military report previously used forensic analysis of the capture site to conclude there was a high likelihood both were dead.
However, Israeli officials have dismissed this report, saying it was an "attempt to disseminate disinformation on this extremely sensitive issue," the Telegraph reports. Both Arabic and Israeli newspapers extensively discussed the possibility that Monday's swap could presage a more significant one.
According to Al Jazeera, early reports had suggested that "the remains being released [by Hizbullah] were from a soldier" not a civilian. This is not the first such exchange between Israel and Hizbullah.
In 2004, Israel agreed to free [Sameer] Kuntar as part of an exchange deal which saw nearly 450 prisoners, most of them Palestinians and Arabs, released in exchange for Elhanan Tannenbaum, an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three soldiers.
Kuntar was to be freed at a later date in return for information on the fate of Ron Arad, an Israeli air force navigator who has been missing since October 1986 when his plane was shot down over southern Lebanon.
An Israeli official told the AFP news agency that Hezbollah said it would provide information about Arad as part of Monday's deal.
Kuntar was jailed for 542 years in 1980 for killing a scientist and his four-year-old daughter as well as an Israeli policeman.
Bassam Kuntar, Samir's brother, told Al Jazeera that the exchange was a victory for Hizbullah and Lebanon, and that Hizbullah would not give Israel any information about the two soldiers captured last July until his brother was released.
A commentary in the Jerusalem Post highlighted the "significance of the swap," asking whether it will serve as a preview of bigger deals to come involving the other captured or missing Israelis.
According to reports, Monday's exchange did in fact include "sensitive information" on Arad, missing since he parachuted into Lebanon in 1986 ... If indeed such information was given by Hizbullah and provides leads to Arad's fate, then surely there must be more to Monday's deal than has been made public.
Monday's news has thus only increased speculation that such a deal … may be connected with the release from a German prison planned for December of an Iranian citizen, Kazem Darabi, and a Lebanese, Abbas Rhayel, who were serving life sentences for the assassination of four Iranian Kurdish dissidents in a Berlin restaurant in 1992, possibly on orders from Iranian intelligence.
… Much of the hopeful speculation around Monday's deal bears similarities to the so-called "second phase" of the exchange between Israel and Hizbullah that freed Elhanan Tannenbaum in January 2004 … The price paid for Tannenbaum, a shady businessman held captive in Lebanon, was high - more than 400 Palestinian and Lebanese terrorists. The deal was justified in part by reports that it would include Hizbullah later releasing information on Arad - just like on Monday - and possibly the Sultan Yacoub MIAs. But as the months passed, that information never materialized, and Hizbullah reportedly upped the price by also demanding the release of Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tamped down the speculation Tuesday, stating that the return of the two soldiers is "far off," reports the Associated Press.
In a speech broadcast on national radio Tuesday, Olmert urged caution, saying it would be a long time before Israel brought home the two soldiers, Ehud "Udi" Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, whose capture by Hezbollah sparked a 34-day war last year.
… In his speech, Olmert said the government has never stopped trying to bring its soldiers home and said "processes are taking place behind the scenes."
The UN Security Council cease-fire resolution that halted the fighting last year demanded that Hizbullah turn over the seized soldiers, the Associated Press reports. "But Hezbollah has repeatedly said the two soldiers would be freed only in exchange for freedom of all Lebanese prisoners held by Israel."