Possible Prisoner Exchange: Deal Imminent between Israel and Hezbollah

By in Beirut

Israel and Hezbollah are once again close to a deal that would bring two kidnapped Israeli soldiers back home. Details of the agreement, negotiated by a German middleman, indicate that the two might not still be alive.

It was an impressive scene, though hardly a new one: Tens of thousands of Hezbollah supporters gathered in south Beirut on Monday night to celebrate -- as they do every year -- the "Day of Resistance" against Israel. Above the crowd a sea of yellow Hezbollah flags waved and the voice of the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, thundered above them.

The leader of the Hezbollah -- who for security reasons only appeared on a big screen via video link -- served up his usual repertoire: He first lambasted Israel and then the US, before turning to domestic politics. And as his supporters cheered, a short sentence that pointed to a significant success in Middle East diplomacy was nearly drowned out in the celebrations.

Celebrating the "Day of Resistance" in Beirut: A woman holds aloft a photograph of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
DPA

Celebrating the "Day of Resistance" in Beirut: A woman holds aloft a photograph of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

"Before long, Samir and his brothers will be with you in Lebanon," Nasrallah declared over the loudspeakers. His followers knew exactly what he was referring to: A prisoner exchange between Israel and Hezbollah, which has been arranged by German mediators, seems to be a done deal and the transfer of the men imminent. The Hezabollah supporters cheered the news.

If the exchange succeeds, the Shiite militia will add another victory to their triumphs of the past few weeks.

At least six Lebanese men are still locked up in Israeli prisons, and Hezbollah has made it its goal to get them out. To gain leverage in this game of political poker, fighters from Hezbollah carried out a raid in Israeli territory on July 12, 2006 and abducted the Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. Their kidnappings triggered the 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006.

A 'Disinterested and Honest' Broker

Immediately after the war, negotiations for the release of the two Israelis began under the auspices of the United Nations. Once again, Germany was chosen as a go-between.

It was hardly a new role for the country. Indeed, Berlin has already facilitated several deals between the Shiite militia group and the Jewish state. In January 2004, Ernst Uhrlau, who was then the secret service coordinator in the German chancellory, managed to facilitate a deal that saw Israel release 435 mostly Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners in return for an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three soldiers.

This time around, the German intelligence service BND is once again playing a vital role.

"Germany is trusted by both sides because, over the years, it has demonstrated that it is a disinterested and honest broker," Kamel Wazne says of Germany's special role in secret diplomacy in Beirut. Wazne, who is close to Hezbollah, is a commentator much in demand by Western media when it comes to explaining the it. Wazne said: "Germany always did what it promised it would, which has given the country a lot of credibility with Hezbollah."

Are Regev and Goldwasser Still Alive?

According to the well-informed Israeli army radio, Israel has said it is willing to hand over five Lebanese prisoners for the return of Goldwasser and Regev. Israel would also be willing to release the bodies of 10 Hezbollah fighters, it added. The low numbers of prisoners being mentioned in the deal has raised eyebrows in Israel. Many take it to mean that the two soldiers are no longer alive.

From the very moment of the abduction, the Israeli army was convinced that the two men were badly hurt because of the blood stains they found at the site of the attack. In the two years since, Hezbollah has offered no signs of life from the two men.

Common practice, however, dictated that Israel stick to the official line that the two soldiers were still alive. Indeed, when the Israeli government recently threatened to declare Goldwasser and Regev dead, observers saw it as a message to Hezbollah. In Middle Eastern hostage poker, living prisoners are worth more than dead ones. An Israeli statement saying they no longer expected to get the soldiers back alive would have weakened Hezbollah's negotiating position. The message was: This is our last offer.

When the transfer will actually happen remains unclear. Mahmud Komati, a member of the Hezbollah political bureau, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the standard practice is for Hassan Nasrallah to personally decide the timing.

"Given what Nasrallah recently said," Wazne says, "it could happen very soon." He says it looks as though Hezbollah is willing to accept the current offer, which was made by the German mediator two weeks ago.

Now, the ball is in the Israeli court. "The problem is that Olmert is wounded and has hardly any support among the population," he said. Another problem, Wazne added, is that Olmert's opponents might try to scuttle a deal that Olmert would take the credit for. (Calls for Olmert to resign amid a growing bribery scandal continue to gain momentum on Wednesday.)

This isn't the first time a deal on the swap was close. Just under a year ago, a trade was scuttled -- allegedly because the Israeli press did not stick to an agreement to remain silent and government critics were able to torpedo the deal in public.

Moreover, although nearly every Israeli wants to see the return of the two kidnapped soldiers, the upcoming deal is likewise not free of controversy. Hezbollah has explicitly called for the release of men who -- in Israel -- fall into the category of those "with blood on their hands." And many Israelis find it hard to accept that terrorists -- who not only planned but carried out attacks -- should be sent home.

The Crux of the Barter

From the start, the biggest hurdle was Samir Kuntar, who Nasrallah mentioned in his speech. Kuntar has been languishing in an Israeli prison for over 28 years, and Israel has always rejected his extradition because of the seriousness of his crimes.

In 1979, Kuntar infiltrated the Israeli port city Nahariya by boat with a commando team and abducted Danny and Einat Haran, a 28-year-old father and his 4-year-old daughter. On the way back, Israeli police intercepted the kidnappers, and a gun battle ensued. Kuntar then shot Haran in front of his daughter, before beating her to death. He was sentenced to 542 years jail.

Now, however, signs that he will be released after all -- and that the prisoner exchange is imminent -- are increasing. Jerusalem announced it would soon release Nasim Nasr, an Israeli accused of spying for Lebanon. Nasr, who converted to Islam, was sentenced to six years prison in 2002. Although he has served his sentence, Israel still holds him in custody.

According to his lawyer, Smadar Ben-Natan, the timing of his release is "no coincidence." She told the Israeli media that her client could be part of the agreement negotiated by Germany.

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