Saturday, June 28, 2008

Another Israel-Hezbollah Prisoner Swap?

P. David Hornik

A lot happened in Israel this week: the Olmert government again scraping through, at least till September, with an eleventh-hour deal between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak; the government’s ceasefire with Hamas already blasted by mortar and rocket firings from Gaza. At the center of public attention, though, were three hostages of terrorist organizations and their fate.

It was two years ago on Wednesday—June 25, 2006—that Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was abducted into Gaza by Hamas. On Thursday Israeli negotiator Ofer Dekel was again in Cairo for talks on a deal for Shalit that still appears elusive. And it was on July 12, 2006, that Israeli reserve soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were abducted into Lebanon by Hezbollah. In this case a deal is said to be within reach and the Israeli cabinet is supposed to vote Sunday on a framework agreement for a prisoner exchange with Hezbollah.

Reports vary as to the terms of the agreement. But according to what could be called the dominant version, Israel is supposed to hand over the notorious Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar, four terrorists captured during the 2006 war, and the remains of eight others who were buried in Israel. Hezbollah is supposed to hand over Regev and Goldwasser, whose kidnapping prompted Israel to go to war in a failed attempt to retrieve them.

Hezbollah is also supposed to provide information on Ron Arad, the Israeli air force navigator who was shot down in Lebanon in 1986 and whose fate has been unknown since 1988, though it’s believed he was transferred to Iran and is most likely dead.

If it sounds surprisingly close to a fair exchange after Israel’s past lopsided deals with Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations, the hitch is that Regev and Goldwasser, according to Israeli intelligence, are definitely dead. Reportedly all three branches—the Mossad, the Shin Bet, and Military Intelligence—reached that conclusion in separate investigations and conveyed it to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last June 3.

So the imbalance is there after all—especially considering that Samir Kuntar is supposed to be part of the deal.

In 1979, in the course of a terrorist attack in the Israeli coastal town of Nahariya, Kuntar and others took 28-year-old Israeli civilian Danny Haran and his four-year-old daughter Einat down to the beach as hostages. There Kuntar shot Danny Haran dead and killed Einat Haran by smashing her head on rocks and with the butt of his rifle.

Since then Kuntar has been jailed in Israel with a life sentence. Last February the assassination of terrorist leader Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus prompted him to send a letter—reprinted in the Palestinian Authority daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida—to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in which he wrote: “Peace be unto…Imad Mughniyeh…. My oath and pledge is that my place will be at the battlefront…and that I shall continue down the path, until complete victory.”

For Nasrallah, eager to shore up his newly enhanced standing in the Lebanese political scene, freeing the child-killer is high-priority. Kuntar’s inclusion in the prospective deal, though, has led Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin to raise objections to it. Dagan and Diskin are particularly concerned that, after paying such a price, Hezbollah could “reciprocate” with information on Ron Arad that’s of little worth and sheds little light.

Dagan and Diskin’s objections are reportedly what has caused Olmert to have second thoughts and order the army’s chaplaincy corps to declare Regev and Goldwasser KIA—killed in action—which some have interpreted as Olmert's attempt to dampen support for the deal.

Some observations:

1. Israel has itself to blame for making the kidnapping of Israelis a key objective of terrorist organizations. Israel’s previous severely asymmetrical deals are infamous, not least in Israel itself; the most egregious case is the 1985 Jibril Deal in which—sparking public outrage—Israel traded 1150 terrorists for three soldiers held by Ahmed Jibril’s PFLP. Now, reportedly, teams have been formed to draft a new policy for such situations. Earlier the Winograd Committee, set up to investigate the failures in the 2006 war in Lebanon, called for an end to what it called “crazy deals.” Clearly, continuing to make such exchanges means inviting further kidnapping attempts since Israel’s enemies have so much to gain from them.

2. The value of retrieving the bodies of dead soldiers is very real; Israel is dealing with ghoulish enemies who won’t hesitate to exploit families’ natural desire for the closure afforded by a funeral and a gravesite. Trading live terrorist prisoners for corpses, however, gives terrorists a message that they have nothing to lose: they can kidnap the Israelis and, even if they kill them, still reap a high price for them. Israel’s January 2004 deal with Hezbollah, when it freed 435 terrorists in return for the shady businessman Elhanan Tanenbaum and three corpses of soldiers, may possibly have been a death warrant for Eldad and Goldwasser since Hezbollah had little incentive to keep them alive.

3. The terrorist organizations’ behavior in these situations is a display of human evil at its coldest and most sadistic. Hezbollah has kept conveying shifting versions of the terms it will accept while refusing to disclose if Eldad and Goldwasser are dead or alive. The terrorists use the pain of the soldiers’ families, and the pressure they inevitably exert on the Israeli government, as part of their arsenal. Although Shalit has been allowed to send his parents three letters, neither he nor Eldad and Goldwasser have been seen by a third party, visited by the Red Cross, let alone visited by a relative. Both Hezbollah and Hamas have exploited the case of Ron Arad—vanished for twenty years—by threatening that the current hostages’ fate will be similar if Israel doesn’t pay the demanded prices.

For Israel it’s a disconcerting experience of staring evil in the face, but an experience from which Israel has to learn. If it ends up paying an exorbitant price for Shalit, or for the remains of Goldwasser and Regev plus inadequate information on Arad, it has to make clear that this is the last time. Expecting such clarity and resolve from Israel’s current government, however, is excessively optimistic.
P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator living in Tel Aviv. He blogs at He can be reached at

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