Progress in prisoner swap but hopes fade for soldiers

By Anshel Pfeffer, June 6, 2008

The first stage of a prisoner swap between Israel and Hizbollah took place this week amid growing fears that the two IDF soldiers captured two years ago are dead.

Hizbollah surprised Israel with a consignment of body parts, belonging to five soldiers killed during the Second Lebanon War.

The handover at Nakura on Sunday was supposed to be of convicted spy Nassim Nasser who had finished serving his six-year prison sentence in Israel.

His return to Lebanon was expected to be the first stage of a larger deal including four more Hizbollah fighters, captured by Israel in the Second Lebanon War, and Samir Kuntar, who is serving a life sentence for murdering three Israelis in 1979.

But Hizbollah had a surprise in store: a crate with the remains of Israeli soldiers. Upon examination, the remains turned out to be of five fighters who were killed in two separate incidents during the war and whose bodies were not retrieved completely for burial.

Four of the soldiers were members of the air crew of a helicopter shot down two days before the end of the 2006 war. The fifth soldier was killed in a separate incident by an anti-tank missile. The IDF notified the families of the soldiers and informed them of the plans to bury the body parts in the existing graves.

Israeli intelligence sources are uncertain of the motive behind Hizbollah’s unexpected move. It is widely believed that the movement’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, wants to keep the Israeli side in suspense, showing that he has more cards up his sleeve for the next stage of negotiations.

Hizbollah may also have been trying to prove to its Lebanese constituency that it has the upper hand, giving body parts, in exchange for a live prisoner.

Last week, Mr Nasrallah announced in a speech in Beirut that Lebanese prisoners in Israel were “our commitment, and Samir Kuntar and his brothers will soon return to Lebanon”.

It was also reported last weekend that the German negotiator, Conrad Gerhard, had told the Israeli government that Hizbollah, most likely, is holding only the bodies of Israeli troops, and that captured soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev are not alive. This tallies with a medical report compiled by the IDF after the attack on a border patrol in July 2006, which reached the conclusion that the two had been critically wounded in the fighting and that if they had not received immediate treatment, then they would have died.

Officially, Israel is maintaining the position that the two are alive until supplied with conclusive evidence otherwise. This is also the position of their families who are still campaigning for their return.

“They understand the real situation,” said an Israeli source close to the negotiations and the families. “But they also don’t want to acknowledge anything while there is no proof and there is even a sliver of hope.”

Hizbollah has yet to supply Israel with any information on the condition of Mr Goldwasser and Mr Regev.

The assumption that they are almost certainly dead is a factor in Israel’s refusal to Hizbollah’s demands to release also Palestinian prisoners as part of the impending deal.

Hizbollah would like to bring about the release of Palestinians also, to show that it is the defender of all the Arab people, but Israel is insisting that the Palestinian prisoners it is holding will be traded only for Sergeant Gilad Shalit, being held in Gaza, who Israel has definite proof is alive.

Last updated: 11:28am, June 5 2008