JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israel’s cabinet gave final approval on Tuesday for a prisoner swap with Lebanon’s Hezbollah group, clearing the way for the exchange to get under way as planned on Wednesday, government officials said.
The deal had stirred opposition from several cabinet ministers who voiced concern over trading prisoners for the bodies of Israeli troops. Israel is to free five Lebanese guerrillas in return for two soldiers who Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said were most probably dead.
The officials said the cabinet voted 22-3 to ratify the exchange. “This is not a happy day for any of us, to release murderers such as these. But we have a moral and soulful obligation to bring our soldiers home,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said before the vote.
In preparation for the exchange at the Israeli-Lebanese border, Maher Qorani, Mohammad Srour, Hussein Suleiman and Khodr Zeidan were transferred on Monday from a prison where they had been held since their capture in the 2006 Lebanon war to a jail where they joined the fifth inmate, Samir Qantar.
Qantar, the most high-profile Lebanese prisoner in Israel, was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing a policeman, another man and his 4-year-old daughter in a raid in the northern Israeli town of Nahariya in 1979.
In return for releasing the five men, Israel will recover reserve soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, whose capture by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid triggered the 34-day war with the Iranian-backed group two years ago.
Hezbollah has given no word on their condition.
Under the deal, negotiated by a German intelligence officer, Israel will also hand over the bodies of 200 Arabs killed while infiltrating northern Israel, and Hezbollah will return the remains of Israeli soldiers killed in south Lebanon in 2006.
Olmert had described Qantar as the last bargaining chip for word on the fate of Israeli airman Ron Arad, who disappeared after bailing out during a bombing run on Lebanon in 1986.
Critics of the current prisoner exchange deal have accused Olmert’s government of abandoning any chance of recovering Arad.
As part of the swap, Israel received a report on Arad and previously unseen photos of the airman from Hezbollah, but there was no sign that the information had shed new light on his fate.
Olmert told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday the Hezbollah document was “absolutely unsatisfactory,” an Olmert aide said.
Members of Arad’s family have said achieving closure for the families of Goldwasser and Regev was paramount.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had been asked by both Israel and Hezbollah to arrange the exchange, due to begin around 9:00 a.m. (0600 GMT) on Wednesday.
Security sources in Lebanon said the released Lebanese would be flown from the border crossing at Naqoura, on the Mediterranean coast, to Beirut airport for an official reception.