Free at last, but at what price? That was the question on some Israelis' minds over the weekend after a German mediator helped seal the deal on a long-awaited prisoner swap between Israel and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia group.
Barring last-minute delays, an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah in October 2000 were scheduled to arrive in Tel Aviv on Thursday. In return, Israel was slated to release 435 Arab security prisoners and a German sent as a Hezbollah spy, as well return the remains of 59 dead Lebanese and Palestinian fighters to their next of kin.
As part of a second phase of the deal, Israel hopes to receive information about Ron Arad, the Israel air force navigator who went missing after bailing out from his failing Phantom jet over Lebanon in 1986.
Despite the asymmetry of the exchange and its inconsistency with Israel's general principle of refusing to negotiate with terrorists, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was upbeat.
"In my opinion, we made the proper, ethical and responsible decision," he told his Cabinet on Sunday.
But set against Israel's ongoing conflict with Hezbollah, the deal drew warnings from security experts that it would increase the risk that Israelis would be kidnapped for ransom -- a fear borne out by the militia's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
Asked at a Beirut news conference Sunday if Hezbollah would kidnap more Israelis to achieve its ends, Nasrallah smiled and said, "Yes, yes."
"After Thursday and Friday, there will be no Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails," he added. "But the door is still open, and the second stage will be very important, especially for the release of more prisoners."
That was music to the ears of the relatives of some 7,500 Palestinians held in Israeli jails. At a pro-Hezbollah rally in the Gaza Strip, several families chanted, "Kidnap a soldier and free a hundred [Palestinians]." "Twist the Zionists' arm."
Hezbollah ambushed Israeli soldiers Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Souad as they patrolled along the Lebanese border in October 2000. Israel later declared them dead. Last week, Hezbollah -- which the United States and Israel classify as a terrorist group -- killed a bulldozer driver with the Israeli army who was clearing mines along the border.
"It can be assumed that the liberation bash Hezbollah is planning will send the signal to terrorists of all stripes that this is a tactic that pays," terrorism analyst Boaz Ganor wrote in Israel's daily Ma'ariv.
There is added controversy around the fact that the only living Israeli to be repatriated as a result of the deal, Elhanan Tannenbaum, was nabbed by Hezbollah during an alleged illicit business trip to the Persian Gulf.
While a military honor guard will await the arrival of the three dead soldiers at Ben-Gurion Airport on Thursday, Tannenbaum can expect a far more modest reception. He may even be prosecuted for violating Israeli law by traveling illegally to hostile Arab states.
Notably absent from the release roster is Arad.
As part of the deal, Israel agreed to free both Hezbollah leader Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid and Shi'ite leader Mustafa Dirani, both Lebanese nationals it hoped to trade for Arad.
But Jerusalem claimed its own victory in refusing to release Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese jailed for life for killing three Israelis in a 1979 terrorist attack. Nasrallah last year had threatened to make his demand for Kuntar's release a deal-breaker.
According to Israeli security sources, Hezbollah has been given a grace period to provide information on Arad, perhaps from Iran. In exchange, Israel would retry Kuntar with a view to commuting his sentence to time already served.
Army Radio on Monday quoted a senior government source saying that once any information on Arad is authenticated, Israel could release more Palestinians -- including some previously blacklisted for having "blood on their hands."
Thursday's deal has its precedents. In the early 1980s, Israel released more than 5,700 security prisoners in exchange for eight Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon.
In 1998, it released 60 Lebanese security prisoners in exchange for the remains of an Israeli commando killed in action.
"We may deal asymmetrically, but no one can deny the premium Israel puts on human life," a senior political source in Jerusalem said.
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