Israel-Hizballah Prisoner Swap Goes Through

The announcement Saturday, January 24, only marked the end of Part One of the agonizing, frequently-stalled negotiations for the exchange of prisoners, abductees and bodies between Israel and the Lebanese terrorist group Hizballah. The tireless German mediator, Ernest Uhrlau, said he had every reason to hope that the second part would also reach closure in two to three months, bringing to an end a series of murky episodes going back more than twenty years.
Promising though this may sound, Part Two is still covered by a dense shadow of intrigue and uncertainty because of four factors revealed here by debkafile‘s intelligence sources:
First disclosure: The key figure in the breakthrough was the Lebanese Druse leader Walid Jumblatt. He became involved in the sensitive Part Two of the transaction (details of which are blacked out by an Israeli court gag order) because the most hotly disputed Lebanese prisoner, Samir Kuntar, incarcerated since 1979 for murdering three Israelis in Nahariya, is a Lebanese Druse who will not be released with the first group.
Hailing from Kafr Baklin on Mt. Lebanon, Kuntar was recruited for a terrorist attack in Israel at the age of 17 by Abu al- Abbas, head of the Arab Liberation Front – not as a Palestinian but as a Lebanese Druse. That is why the Hizballah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, did not put up much of a fight to get him out of Israeli prison.
Kuntar’s release is therefore contingent on the success of a yet-to-be established Israeli-Hizballah-German team in discovering the fate of the Israeli Air Force navigator Ron Arad who bailed out of his F-4 warplane over Lebanon in 1986. Though captured alive, Arad has never been heard of since and is believed to have disappeared in Iranian captivity. The Israeli government has announced that Kuntar will be released only in return for solid evidence of Arad’s fate, his person if alive or a DNA sample – if not. As a sort of tit for tat, the team will also undertake to discover what happened to four Iranian diplomats whom a Lebanese Christian Phalangist gang kidnapped and murdered in Lebanon in 1982.
Israel has released complete dossiers recording the incident, naming the killers and describing where the diplomats are buried – to no avail. Tehran keeps on demanding that Israel admit the four Iranians are alive and held in Israel. Israeli officials have concluded that Tehran keeps on reverting to this charge in order to avoid leveling on the missing Israeli navigator and admitting he was either murdered in Iran or is still imprisoned there.
Next week, Part One will go forward when a German plane lands in Beirut to fly the bodies of three Israeli soldiers whom the Hizballah kidnapped on border patrol in October 2000: Omar Sawad, Benny Avraham and Adi Avitan, together with the civilian Elhanan Tannenbaum who was abducted separately in the Persian Gulf and carried to Beirut. They will be flown to Frankfurt or Hamburg and brought by an Israeli plane to an air force base in Israel.
In return, Israel will release app. 424 prisoners – 400 Palestinians, who will be handed over to Palestinian authorities and 23 Lebanese, including Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, whom Israel abducted in Lebanon more than a decade ago as bargaining chips for the Ron Arad. This group will also include a German citizen, Stefan Smyrek and a Briton, Jihad Shuman, whom Hizballah recruited to spy and carry out terrorist missions in Israel. Five Syrians, 3 Sudanese and 1 Libyan will be released to their countries. The bodies of 59 Lebanese war victims will be handed over plus information on the fate of 24 Lebanese MIAs. Hizballah will also receive a map of minefields laid by Israel and the defunct pro-Israel South Lebanese Army on the Lebanese side of the frontier.
Sunday, Israel’s chief POW negotiator, Brigadier General (ret.) Ilan Biran will report on the prisoner swap breakthrough to the full Israeli cabinet Sunday. Hizballah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah promises a news conference.
debkafile‘s second disclosure is this:
The official announcement glosses over the fact that, to consummate the deal, Israel reneged on its cherished principle not to swap terrorists who have murdered Israelis inside Israel. Two Lebanese Palestinians with blood on their hands, Anwar Yassin and Ali Balhas, will go free this week.
Nasrallah has at least one more compelling reason to be pleased with the deal, according to debkafile‘s third disclosure.
Strongly underpinned by the drug trade and a worldwide intelligence network, Hizballah’s financial wellbeing is heavily dependent on local drug barons and their connections with Egyptian, Saudi and Jordan traffickers. Nasrallah therefore made sure to obtain the release of Ali Baro, scion of south Lebanon’s largest Shiite drug clans, whose brother works the Beirut route to the Americas and abetted in the capture of Elhanan Tannenbaum for handing over to the Hizballah. Also to be freed is Michel Nahra, member of the biggest Christian drug clan of south Lebanon.
Israel, which hitherto steadfastly refused to let this pair of drug traffickers go, has now granted the Hizballah a substantial prestige boost in the Lebanese regions bordering on Israel.
Furthermore, the transaction is going through without any hard commitment from the Hizballah to get hold of information on Ron Arad. The German mediator, too, offered only a fervent hope that the final clincher of the transaction would be in the bag in two to three months – no positive assurances.
Our fourth disclosure:
On Thursday, January 22, German interior minister Otto Schilly brought a large official delegation to Beirut to assure the Hizballah leader in Beirut that the entire political spectrum in Berlin was keen on the prisoner swap going through – not just German intelligence. From that meeting, Nasrallah went straight to Jumblatt. He had just realized that the entire transaction would stand or fall on the Druse leader agreeing to keep Kuntar’s family quiet. His relatives were kicking up a fuss, publicly accusing the Hizballah of failing to free the Druse terrorist from Israel and demanding that the Lebanese government move in on the negotiations. Nasrallah realized that he dare not abandon the only Druse on the Lebanese prisoner list unless Jumblatt was behind him.
The Druse leader agreed on the spot and indeed sent messengers to the angry family to tell them that Samir was happy to see his comrades go free and fully expected to join them in three months.
Jumblatt’s motives are apt to be serpentine. The colorful Druse leader’s web of clandestine intelligence connections has been a subject of speculation for many years. He is generally believed to have a long history with the SVR and its predecessor, the KGB. According to one conjecture, the Germans asked Moscow to step in and ask him to perform this favor and so let the deal go forward – for the sake of their relations, rather than Nasrallah.
Kuntar will therefore find himself under Israeli lock and key for the foreseeable future. The inquiry team set up to find out what befell Ron Arad is not expected to get anywhere in two to three months or at any time at all – unless of course Tehran decides otherwise.

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