JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s Cabinet narrowly approved
a prisoner swap with Hezbollah after eight hours of anguished
debate yesterday, overriding warnings that the deal could signal
weakness and encourage more kidnappings of Israelis.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lobbied hard for the swap, which
excludes Israel’s most famous missing serviceman, Air Force
navigator Ron Arad, who was shot down over Lebanon 17 years ago.
The vote was one of Sharon’s toughest leadership tests in
The deal for the swap could still collapse, and the Lebanese
guerrilla group threatened yesterday to kidnap more Israelis if it
Under the deal, about 400 Palestinians and several dozen
prisoners from Lebanon, Syria, Morocco, Sudan and Libya will be
released in exchange for Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and
the bodies of three Israeli soldiers.
The Palestinians have been pressing Israel to release
Palestinian prisoners — though the exchange might not have an
immediate effect on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It could
further boost Hezbollah’s popularity among Palestinians and
reinforce a belief that Israel only responds to force.
Some Israelis believe the Palestinians have been encouraged in
their ongoing uprising by Israel’s withdrawal from southern
Lebanon in 2000, seen by Arabs as a victory for Hezbollah’s
years of resistance against Israeli troops.
In yesterday’s Cabinet session, the ministers voted
without knowing the names of most of those to be released, but were
assured that they would not have been involved in killing Israelis
— with the exception of several Lebanese prisoners on the
list who killed Israeli soldiers in south Lebanon.
That restriction would presumably preclude the release of
Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti, who stands accused by
Israel of a role in attacks that killed 26 Israelis. Palestinian
sources have said they expected Barghouti to be released.
Palestinians reacted with disappointment yesterday.
Issa Karake of the Palestinian Prisoners Association said he had
hoped those with life terms would be among those freed.
“If this standard (of not having killed Israelis) is
applied, the deal will lose its value because the long-serving
prisoners are those who carried out operations in which they killed
Israelis,” he said.
More than 7,000 Palestinians are held by Israel, most of them
rounded up in Israeli military raids in the past three years of
fighting. The release of prisoners is a top priority for the
Palestinian Authority, but the Sharon government has freed only a
few hundred, most of whom were nearing completion of their