Israel to Free Prisoners

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 30, 2008

JERUSALEM, June 29 -- Israel's cabinet on Sunday approved a rare prisoner swap with the Shiite militia Hezbollah, agreeing to free a convicted murderer and others in exchange for two Israeli soldiers who are believed to be dead.

The soldiers -- Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev -- were captured in a 2006 cross-border raid by Hezbollah. The abduction sparked a month-long war in which Israel bombarded Lebanon from the air and Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets into northern Israel. The fighting killed more than 1,000 Lebanese and 159 Israelis.

While Israel has long said it did not know the fate of Goldwasser and Regev, on Sunday the government acknowledged that they had almost certainly died during the raid or shortly thereafter. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert urged his cabinet to back the deal, saying it "will bring an end to this painful episode -- even at the painful price it costs us."

The cabinet's approval, 22 to 3, came after a six-hour debate that mirrored a wrenching public discussion over whether such an exchange would invite more attempts to capture Israelis. The soldiers' families countered that the state had an obligation not to leave its men on the battlefield.

The government prides itself on taking a hard line against groups such as Hezbollah that are considered terrorist organizations. But with military service compulsory in Israel, there is a visceral identification with the plight of missing soldiers and their families.

"We have an obligation in this sort of situation to bring about a return of the servicemen. It's part of the Israeli ethos. It's part of our strength," said Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev. "We understand that our enemies think it's our weakness, and try to exploit it."

The deal, which followed months of negotiation mediated by Germans under U.N. auspices, marked the first such swap between Israel and Hezbollah since 2004.

Officials expect the latest deal to be completed within two weeks. By Sunday night, Hezbollah was boasting about the exchange, with one leader calling it "proof that the word of the resistance is the most faithful, strongest and supreme."

For Hezbollah, the centerpiece is Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese convicted by an Israeli court in a 1979 attack that ended in the deaths of three members of an Israeli family. Kuntar, then 16, shot and killed Danny Haran in front of his 4-year-old daughter, and then smashed her head with his rifle butt. Haran's wife accidentally smothered their 2-year-old daughter as she attempted to quiet the girl in their hiding space. Two Israeli policeman also were killed.

On Sunday, Smadar Haran Kaiser said she was devastated by Israel's decision but understood it. "The despicable murderer Kuntar was never my own personal prisoner, but the state's prisoner," she said at a news conference. "Even if my soul should be torn, and it is torn, my heart is whole."

Hezbollah also obtained the release of four of its fighters and an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners.

Relatives of Goldwasser and Regev expressed relief, even though their worst fears could soon be confirmed. "I am glad the government accepted the deal, and that the debate ended with the voice of logic," said Shlomo Goldwasser, Ehud's father.

Zvi Regev, father of Eldad, said that despite Olmert's statement Sunday that the two soldiers were dead, "so long as it has not been proved, our sons our alive."

Israel also will receive a report on missing airman Ron Arad, whose plane crashed in Lebanon in 1986, and body parts of other Israeli soldiers.

Among the lawmakers who opposed the deal was Yossi Beilin, who told Israel Radio: "The principle must be releasing live prisoners for live hostages, and releasing bodies in return for the fallen."

Israel is still trying to win the release of Gilad Shalit, a soldier captured near the Gaza Strip three weeks before the abduction of Goldwasser and Regev.

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

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