JERUSALEM, (AP) – Lebanon’s Hezbollah has told Israel it does not know what happened to an airman missing for more than two decades but it believes he is dead, Israeli officials said Saturday. The report could clear the way for a prisoner swap between the two foes.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert received the Hezbollah report Saturday on the fate of Ron Arad, an airman missing since he was captured alive after his fighter jet went down over Lebanon in 1986.
Israel officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because no official announcement was released, said Hezbollah told Israel in the report it did not know what happened to Arad but believes he is dead.
The report was part of an Israel-Hezbollah deal in which Israel would hand over Samir Kantar, a Lebanese man serving multiple life terms for a 1979 attack in Israel’s north; four Hezbollah prisoners; and dozens of fighters’ bodies.
In return, Israel was to get two soldiers captured by Hezbollah in a 2006 cross-border raid that set off a fierce 34-day war. Olmert has said that he believes the soldiers are dead.
Israeli military officials say the exchange is likely to take place this week, pending final approval by the Cabinet.
Olmert plans to bring it up for a discussion in his Cabinet on Tuesday, Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said.
Arad’s daughter, Yuval, urged authorities not to declare her father dead nor to give up the search for him.
“It sounds strange perhaps but you can’t declare a person dead just because you don’t know,” Arad told Channel 10 TV Friday. She was an infant when he went missing.
Arad was forced to parachute out of his fighter jet after one of its bombs apparently malfunctioned. The jet’s pilot was rescued by Israeli forces, but Arad was captured by guerrillas from the Shiite Amal organization.
Letters and photographs from Arad were initially sent to Israel, but talks for his release failed not long afterward and the navigator was not heard from again.
A U.N.-appointed German official mediated the prisoner swap, which Israel had originally approved June 29. Israeli negotiator Ofer Dekel had recently traveled to Europe to pick up the document on Arad.
In exchange for the report, Israel is to provide information on four Iranian diplomats who disappeared in Lebanon in 1982. Iran claims they were kidnapped by Lebanese militiamen allied with Israel and turned over to Israeli troops.
Israel denies holding them.
Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, taking over large areas as part of a military sweep to expel Palestinian guerrillas.
Kantar is serving multiple life sentences for one of the most gruesome attacks in Israeli history. He was convicted of shooting a policeman and then killing an Israeli man in front of his 4-year-old daughter before beating her to death.
Kantar denies killing the girl.