JERUSALEM (AFP) – A prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah will go ahead only once Israel receives information on an airman who went missing in Lebanon in 1986, according to security officials cited by public radio on Monday.
The Israeli cabinet on Sunday gave the green light to the deal under which the remains of two soldiers are to be handed over in exchange for five Lebanese “fighters” and an undetermined number of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.
But the deal only would be signed after Israel receives from Hezbollah intelligence on Ron Arad, an Israeli air force navigator missing since he flew a mission over southern Lebanon in 1986 during the country’s civil war.
Hezbollah has said in the past Arad was believed to be dead.
He was captured by another Shiite movement, Amal, headed by Nabih Berri who is now speaker of the Lebanese parliament.
Once Israel examines the report, the prisoner exchange could take place within 10 days, the radio said.
Under the agreement, Israel would release the five Lebanese and the remains of Hezbollah fighters in exchange for the remains of Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.
The Israelis were captured by Hezbollah fighters in a deadly cross-border raid on July 12, 2006 that sparked a devastating 34-day war in Lebanon.
After this part of the deal is over, Israel will decide within 30 days which Palestinian prisoners will be released, media said. The document approved by the cabinet on Sunday states that Israel alone will decide how many Palestinians will be released.
The deal has drawn some criticism in Israel, and Mossad spy agency chief Meir Dagan voiced strong opposition during Sunday’s cabinet meeting.
A controversial part of the agreement is the release of Lebanese prisoner Samir Kantar, a member of the Palestine Liberation Front who is currently serving a 542-year sentence for killing two men and a four-year-old girl in a 1979 attack in northern Israel.
But Olmert’s spokesman Mark Regev said Israel had “a moral obligation” to bring back its servicemen.
“In these negotiations we have been forced to deal with Hezbollah, a cynical terrorist organisation that has no qualms about manipulating the pain of our servicemen families.”
Regev and Goldwasser are believed to have been badly wounded during their capture.
“Our initial theory was that the soldiers were alive… Now we know with certainty there is no chance that that is the case,” Olmert told his cabinet on Sunday.
Hezbollah hailed the deal as a victory for the Shiite militia.
“The world could not achieve the Israeli goal of recovering its soldiers without the resistance dictating its terms: the release of prisoners,” Hezbollah executive council chief Hashem Safie Eddin said on Sunday.