JERUSALEM, (AP) – The Israeli government said it will swap prisoners with the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah on Wednesday, closing a chapter between the enemies two years after they fought an inconclusive war.
The prison service said Sunday Israel would free five Lebanese, including the perpetrator of one of the most notorious attacks in Israeli history. In exchange, Hezbollah will return two soldiers it captured in a cross-border raid that sparked the 2006 war. Israel believes the soldiers are dead.
After nearly two years of negotiations through German mediators, Israel’s government approved the release on June 29, but it took several weeks to work out final arrangements. The Israeli announcement came a day after the government received a report from Hezbollah on a missing Israeli soldier who disappeared in Lebanon two decades ago. That report was one of the last sticking points.
In the report, Hezbollah said it does not know what happened to Ron Arad, an Israeli air force navigator who was captured alive after his fighter jet went down in Lebanon in 1986, Israeli officials said.
According to the document, Hezbollah believes that Arad is dead, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the report was not released to the public. The Israeli Cabinet is expected to discuss the report on Tuesday.
Israeli officials said the report contains two new pictures of Arad and parts of a diary he kept in the 1980s. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the material has not been made public, said the diary and the pictures had only “sentimental value” and did not shed light on Arad’s fate. The Hezbollah report offered some new lines of inquiry, but no definite information, they said.
A letter from Arad was delivered to his family during that time and a videotaped message Arad recorded in the late 1980s was released several years ago. But he has not been heard from since then.
The Israeli prison service said that on Wednesday it will free Samir Kantar, a Lebanese man serving multiple life terms for a 1979 attack. After infiltrating Israel, he killed a policeman, then kidnapped a man and his 4-year-old daughter and killed them outside their home.
Israel says Kantar brutally beat the girl to death, though he has denied the accusation. As the attack unfolded, the girl’s mother hid inside a crawl space inside their home and accidentally smothered their 2-year-old daughter, fearing Kantar would find them.
His release has stirred emotional opposition from relatives of victims of the attack and others. Israel’s Supreme Court last week turned down an appeal against his release from children of the dead police officer.
Israel said it would also release four Hezbollah prisoners captured in the 2006 war. Israel also is expected to turn over the bodies of some 200 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters. Military crews dug up the bodies from an Israeli cemetery last week in preparation for the exchange.
In return, Israel is to receive the two soldiers captured by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid on July 12, 2006, that set off a fierce 34-day war. More than 1,000 Lebanese, most of them civilians, were killed in the fighting, according to Lebanese officials, while 159 Israelis were killed, including 40 civilians killed by Hezbollah rockets.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he believes the captive Israeli soldiers are dead. Hezbollah has given no sign that they are alive, and the Red Cross has never been allowed to visit them.
Listing the names of the prisoners to be freed started a 48-hour period for Israelis to appeal against their release to the Supreme Court. The court was not expected to intervene.
Hezbollah has confirmed the planned swap, but it declined comment on Israel’s announcement.
In Jerusalem, Red Cross spokesman Helge Kvam confirmed that Israel had approached his organization about assisting in the upcoming swap with Hezbollah.
He said several technical issues still had to be resolved. The Red Cross must interview the Lebanese prisoners to ensure they want to return to their country. It also would need to bring in enough trucks, most likely from Jordan, if the sides ask it to transport the prisoners and bodies across the Israel-Lebanese border.
“The ICRC confirms we have been approached by Israeli authorities and we have informed them that we are ready to act as a neutral intermediary, as the neutral link between Israel and Hezbollah,” he said.
“The reason this is important to us is for the families on both sides. It’s extremely important that even if they only get mortal remains, they can bury them according them to their traditions and religions.”
As part of the deal, 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, who delivered them to Israeli troops. Israel has long denied holding them, and Samir Geagea, former head of the disbanded Lebanese Forces, has said militiamen killed them.
Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, taking over large areas as part of a military sweep to expel Palestinian guerrillas.