Israel and Hezbollah carried out their first swap since the Second Lebanon War on Monday, a move Israel said was part of a larger negotiation process on the release of two of its soldiers abducted by the guerilla group in July 2006.
The deal saw the release by Israel of a Hezbollah guerilla suffering a mental illness and the bodies of two others, in exchange for the body of an Israeli civilian.
Sources in the Prime Minister’s Bureau said the swap also included information from Hezbollah regarding a separate issue, and that the information would be examined in the coming days.
The Lebanese media reported that the information pertained to the fate of captured Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad, who went missing when his fighter jet went down over Lebanon in 1986.
In a statement on its television station Al-Manar, Hezbollah confirmed that it had transferred information “related to issues of mutual interest, with the intention of achieving progress on them.”
“Hezbollah hopes that this goodwill will produce long-awaited progress toward resolving the cases of all prisoners,” the statement said.
“Israel expects that this evening’s significant step will serve to hasten the processes that have been underway for over a year,” the statement said.
The Israeli whose body was returned was named as Gabriel Dwait, a 27-year-old immigrant from Ethiopia, who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea on January 20, 2005.
Several months ago, Hezbollah began hinting that it held Dwait’s body. Israeli authorities at the time were unaware of the remains of another Israeli in Lebanon. The Abu Kabir Forensics Institute identified Dwait’s body at the border at Rosh Hanikra.
The Lebanese prisoner was identified as 50-year-old Hassan Naim Aqil, a former Hezbollah guerilla who did not fight in the Second Lebanon War. Israel decided to release Aqil, one of Hezbollah men it holds, due to his age and poor health. The bodies of the militants were identified as Ali Wizwaz and Mohammed Damasqiah.
According to a Lebanese security source, the Hezbollah militants were killed in the Second Lebanon War.
“As a goodwill gesture, there will be a swap of a prisoner and the bodies of two Hezbollah fighters for the remains of an Israeli who was not a soldier,” the source said.
Israeli security sources also called the exchange a confidence-building measure, aimed at improving the atmosphere ahead or a future prisoner exchange with Lebanon.
Israel and Hezbollah have in recent months been conducting negotiations aimed at securing the release of captured Israel Defense Forces reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud (Udi) Goldwasser, whose abduction on July 12, 2006 sparked the Second Lebanon War.
The negotiations are being conducted through United Nations-appointed German mediator Ernst Uhrlau. The major sticking point currently in the talks is Hezbollah’s demand that Israel first release a large number of prisoners in exchange for information on the two trips, while Israel is insisting that the exchange be carried out in a single stage.
A large Hezbollah convoy, with an ambulance carrying the remains of the Israeli, arrived at Naqoura town on the Lebanese side of the border with Israel at around 5 P.M. to complete the swap, sources and witnesses said.
The exchange was not covered live by local media, as the military censor had imposed a day-long blackout.
“I’m very proud of my son who gave up his life for his nation,” Hussein Wizwaz, father of one of the two militants, told Reuters as he and relatives of other Lebanese prisoners waited at the border.
An official of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Beirut said the organization acted as an intermediary in the exchange.
Lebanese security officials with knowledge of the exchange said the Lebanese prisoner was later handed over and the swap completed about three hours after it began. They requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar reported Friday that a prisoner exchange between the sides could be carried out in the near future, given the release of an Iranian prisoner held in Germany last week.
Last week, Germany announced its intention to free Kazem Darabi, an Iranian who was to be released in exchange for information on Arad under the terms of a prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hezbollah in 2004.
Several IDF soldiers have been missing in Lebanon since the 1980s and are presumed dead. But there had been no previous report that an Israeli civilian was missing.
By Yossi Melman, Haaretz Correspondent
This isn’t much of a prisoner swap. At most, it’s a mutual gesture. In Israel, there’s hope of attaining two objectives. Firstly, that the swap serve as a confidence-building step vis-a-vis Hezbollah. In addition, officials in Jerusalem are eager for the families of Lebanese prisoners held in Israel to further ratchet up the pressure on Hezbollah to make progress towards completing a prisoner deal in the future.
Nabil Kauk, a Hezbollah strongman responsible for administering southern Lebanon who was reportedly an Israeli target for capture or assassination during the Second Lebanon War, appeared on television for an interview recently.
In the segment, he was seen in the company of the relatives of Lebanese prisoners incarcerated in Israel, telling them that the Shi’ite militia is doing everything in its power to bring their sons back home.
Kauk is not privy to the details of the ongoing negotiations for a prisoner swap. The one person who keeps the talks close to his chest and handles the contacts nearly on his own is the secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah. Kauk, however, can now claim that Hezbollah is following through on its promise it made to the families. In addition, the timing of the deal, coming as it does close to the Eid al-Fitr holiday and the end of the Ramadan fast, can only enhance the deal’s credibility as a goodwill gesture.
Even a deal of this scale with Hezbollah was difficult to consummate. A few months ago, the militia informed Israel that it held in its possession the body of an Israeli national, however refused to provide any more details unless Israel agreed to the release of Lebanese prisoners and the return of the bodies of Hezbollah gunmen.
Israel refused, and Hezbollah gradually began providing bits of information about the body of an Israeli who had drowned in the sea. Israel viewed these development as an opportunity to exploit the cracks in Hezbollah’s negotiating front. Jerusalem dispatched the former deputy head of the Shin Bet security service, Ofer Dekel, to handle the negotiations, which were being mediated by a senior German intelligence official acting on behalf of the United Nations.
As both sides gave the green light to the deal, the central question remains whether the swap will serve as the goodwill gesture that paves the way, as Israel hopes, for the truly significant swap whereby Israel would receive information on the condition of the two IDF soldiers who were abducted by Hezbollah, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. Israel, naturally, seeks to return both soldiers home.
Officials in Jerusalem also hope to obtain information on missing IAF navigator Ron Arad. Sources say that Israel would receive information as part of Monday’s deal, though they refused to detail the quality of the information. In addition, a Christian television station in Lebanon is reporting that Monday’s swap is indeed connected to the Arad issue.
Israeli officials acknowledge that any deal involving details on the whereabouts of Ron Arad would bear a huge price tag. Jerusalem has no doubt that Hezbollah, which is known for its intransigent negotiating tactics and for its ability to play on the sensitivies of the families of the Israeli soldiers missing in action, while using the media to communicate its message to the Israeli public, will do its utmost to extract the highest possible price that they can manage.
Consequently, Monday’s gesture should not be viewed as a foreshadowing of deals to come. One would do well to consider that Israel has on many occasions in the past released Lebanese prisoners as part of a goodwill gesture in the hope that it would bring both sides closer to clinching “the big swap.”
In a number of instances during the 1990s, Israel released Lebanese prisoners held at the Al-Hiyam jail which was then administered by the South Lebanon Army. Israel continued with a similar policy into this decade.
Jerusalem’s objective was to release prisoners and return dead bodies in the hope of obtaining information on Ron Arad and, later, on the three soldiers who were ambushed and killed by Hezbollah gunmen on Mount Dov in 2000, as well as Elhanan Tannenbaum, held in captivity by Hezbollah for more than three years.
In August 2003, Israel returned the bodies of two Hezbollah gunmen in exchange for Hezbollah agreeing to allow the German intermediary at the time, Ernst Uhrlau, to meet with Tannenbaum. This was Uhrlau’s first meeting of the kind. Following the meeting, the public was fed baseless rumors of Tannenbaum’s seriously deteriorating health and false reports that his teeth were uprooted, faulty information which was designed to pressure the government to expedite the process.
Thus the doubts remain as to whether the gestures that Israel makes towards Hezbollah will bring the two sides closer to a breakthrough. However, given the very nature of negotiations with an organization such as Hezbollah, Israel has no alternative but to continue to agree to swaps of this type in the hope that the process ultimately bears fruit. Otherwise, Israel will be accused of failing to turn over every stone in its efforts to win the release of – or obtain relevant information about – soldiers in captivity.
Note: this analysis does not include a discussion of the fate of the many Palestinians and Lebanese kidnapped by Israel.
This is very unfortunate as it was the kidnapping of numerous Lebanese citizens by Israel which convinced Hezbollah to seize IDF soldiers in the hope of an eventual exchange (which now seems underway)