Israeli cabinet okays prisoner exchange with Hezbollah

July 15th, 2008 - 8:22 pm ICT by IANS  

Jerusalem, July 15 (DPA) The Israeli cabinet Tuesday gave final approval to a prisoner exchange deal with Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, scheduled for the next day. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and 21 other ministers voted for the deal, despite fierce opposition by Israel’s Shin Bet internal security and Mossad intelligence organisations.

Three ministers voted against, including two from Olmert’s own Kadima party.

A statement said the government decided to go ahead with the swap, though it agreed with the Shin Bet internal security and Mossad intelligence organisations that a report submitted by Hezbollah on the fate of missing Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad lacked any “credibility”.

“The cabinet decided to absolutely reject the findings and conclusions of the report,” the statement said, adding the report “does not meet the conditions of the agreement”.

The statement thanked UN-appointed German mediator Gerhard Conrad and the German government for their role in securing the deal.

Germany had already brokered another prisoners swap between Israel and Hezbollah in early 2004.

The cabinet statement also vowed to “not to slacken” in its efforts to locate the whereabouts of Arad, whose plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986 and who is believed to be dead and buried at an unknown location.

Israeli President Shimon Peres was later in the day to sign a pardon for Samir Kuntar, the longest-held and highest-profile of the five Lebanese prisoners to be freed under the deal.

But he said the pardon would be conditional on the release of Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, and take effect only after positive identification of the two at the Israel-Lebanon border crossing of Rosh ha’Nikra/Naquora.

Kuntar is serving multiple life terms in an Israeli prison for carrying out a 1979 raid into northern Israel, in which he and his men killed two Israeli policemen, as well as a father and his four-year-old daughter whom they had taken hostage.

Israel’s High Court of Justice meanwhile rejected a last-minute petition against the deal, filed by the family of one of the policemen.

Nine trucks of the International Red Cross also arrived in Israel from Jordan to transport to Lebanon the some 199 bodies of Lebanese fighters and militants exhumed from an anonymous cemetery “for the enemy’s fallen” in the north of the country.

Red Cross representatives were also meeting the five Lebanese prisoners in the central Israeli Hadarim prison Tuesday morning, ahead of the exchange, expected to start at 9 a.m. at the Rosh Ha’Nikra/Naquora crossing Wednesday.

Under the deal, Israel is to hand over the 199 bodies in exchange for Regev and Goldwasser, both of whom are also widely believed to be dead. The two soldiers were captured in a July 2006 cross-border raid by Hezbollah, which sparked a month-long war that had failed to secure their release.

Only after the two soldiers are identified will Israel hand over the five Lebanese prisoners, including Samir Kuntar and four Hezbollah fighters captured in the 2006 war.

The Shin Bet and Mossad strongly opposed Kuntar’s release, because they believe it means giving up a last chance to obtain conclusive information on Arad.

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