Hizbollah ‘eager’ to do prisoner swap

Hizbollah has indicated that it is eager to reach a prisoner-swap deal with Israel, which will include the two captured Israeli soldiers and six Lebanese prisoners being held by Israel.

Lebanese media outlets close to Hizbollah have been reporting an impending deal this week, although Israeli sources suggest this is an effort by Hizbollah to push the negotiations forward.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the militant group, gave a televised address to a Hizbollah rally in Beirut on Monday in which he said: “The prisoners are our promise. Very soon, Samir Kuntar and his brothers will be between you in Lebanon.”

The Hizbollah leader was referring to the Lebanese terrorist who was jailed for life in 1979 after murdering three Israelis in an attack in Nahariya, and to five Hizbollah members currently in Israeli prisons.

Mr Nasrallah’s words followed a flurry of reports in Lebanon that a deal over the prisoners was close to finalisation.

The basic details of the deal are thought to be that Kuntar, four Hizbollah fighters captured in the Second Lebanon War and Nasseem Nasser, a spy for Hizbollah arrested in 2002, will be returned to Lebanon in exchange for the two Israeli soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, captured in the Hizbollah attack on an Israeli border-patrol that sparked the war.

Israeli sources also initially acknowledged that significant progress had been made in the German-mediated negotiations, but later denied the reports and said that a deal was still months away.

In the past, Hizbollah has demanded that Israel also release Palestinian prisoners as part of the deal, a demand that Israel has steadfastly refused.

One reason for the refusal is that Israeli intelligence sources believe there is little chance that Mr Regev and Mr Goldwasser survived the Hizbollah attack on July 2006 and that Israel is only going to receive their bodies. Hizbollah has not supplied Israel with any proof that they are alive.

An Israeli source close to the negotiations told the JC that a deal with Hizbollah was far from finalised and that all the latest reports came from the Lebanese side. According to the source, the reports indicate that Nasrallah is eager to reach a prisoner deal to bolster his political standing inside Lebanon.

One obstacle to doing the deal is an Israeli cabinet decision that Kuntar was to be a “bargaining chip” for a possible deal leading to information on the whereabouts of Israel Air Force navigator, Ron Arad, who was captured in 1986 and disappeared two years later.

A possible solution could be a report by Hizbollah, detailing its unsuccessful efforts to locate Mr Arad, which would be handed to Israel.

    Last updated: 3:16pm, March 2 2009