An exchange of more than 1,000 Arab prisoners held by Israel and three Israeli soldiers captured during the invasion of Lebanon is expected to be carried out early today in Switzerland and several sites in the Middle East.
Barring last-minute complications, the carefully coordinated operation, reportedly involving planes of several nations and a phased transfer over six hours, is to begin with the exchange in Geneva of 350 Arabs for the Israelis and continue with the release of other groups in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and in Syria, according to reports from Damascus and elsewhere.
The exchange, painstakingly negotiated with the assistance of the International Committee of the Red Cross and former Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky, is expected to virtually complete a series of swaps during the past five years that has freed several thousand Arabs from Israeli prisons in return for 16 Israelis.
Among those to be released by the Israelis, according to unconfirmed reports, are Kozo Okamoto, a pro-Palestinian Japanese terrorist convicted of taking part in the attack at the Tel Aviv airport in 1972 that killed 26 persons, and Ziad Abu Eain, a Palestinian whose extradition from the United States in 1981 on disputed bombing charges was condemned by several Arab governments and Arab-American groups.
Given the delicacy of the operation and the possibility of snags, few officials were willing yesterday to discuss the planned exchange. A spokesman for the Red Cross, which is to oversee it, said, "There will be no statement from us today," Washington Post special correspondent John Parry reported from Geneva.
A spokesman said last night that the State Department had no comment on the planned exchange.
The Israeli soldiers expected to be released are Nissim Salem, Yossef Grof and Rezi Shai, all held by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a militant Palestinian faction headed by Ahmed Jibril and allied to Syria and Libya. They were captured near Beirut in September 1982, three months after the Israeli invasion began.
In previous exchanges since the invasion, six Israelis were traded for about 4,500 Lebanese and Palestinians in November 1983, and six more Israelis and 312 Syrians were exchanged last June. In 1979, in an exchange also carried out in Geneva, an Israeli soldier and 76 Palestinians were released.
Uncertainty remains about one Israeli soldier, Samir Assad, a Druze, who according to some reports is being held by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and would be the only Israeli soldier remaining in Arab hands. The DFLP has said he was killed in an Israeli Navy raid on an island off Tripoli, Lebanon.
Sources in Geneva said an Israeli plane carrying 350 Arab prisoners is to arrive at Geneva's Cointrin Airport about midmorning Geneva time. Sources in Damascus told Reuter that three planes -- two Libyan and one Bulgarian -- are to fly the Israeli soldiers to Geneva.
Sources in Damascus, according to Agence France-Presse, said 605 Palestinians are to be released in the Gaza Strip and in Nablus on the West Bank and 153 at Kuneitra, on the Golan Heights.
AFP said the final phase of the negotiations, which took place in Geneva, were led by two top officials of Jibril's faction -- Omar Shehabi and Tahsin Halabi -- and former Israeli justice minister Shmuel Tamir. The negotiations were conducted through a Red Cross representative and Herbert Amry, top aide to Kreisky.
The Associated Press said it was told by sources in Damascus that Kreisky played a key role in negotiations to include Okamoto and other alleged terrorists in the exchange. They noted that Kreisky visited Damascus and Jerusalem and had met with Jabril.
Okamoto was part of a three-member Red Army squad that opened fire at the Lod Airport near Tel Aviv, killing 26 persons, including 16 Puerto Ricans visiting the Holy Land. The other two terrorists were killed in a shootout.
Abu Eain was extradited to Israel in 1981 after a lengthy court battle that went to the Supreme Court and involved the first Israeli extradition request under a 1963 treaty.
Israel accused him of taking part in a 1979 bombing in Tiberias that killed two persons and injured 36. Abu Eain, a U.S. resident, was visiting his home town on the West Bank at the time and denied involvement in the attack.
His U.S. lawyer, former attorney general Ramsey Clark, and former senator James Abourezk mounted a campaign to block his extradition on the ground that the only prosecution witnesses publicly had recanted their testimony, but Abu Eain was returned to Israel. Jordan and more than a dozen other Arab governments protested the U.S. decision.