The Israeli-Hezbollah prisoner exchange deal

Update from AIJAC

July 1, 2008
Number 07/08 #01

This Update focuses on the recently announced prisoner exchange agreement between Israel and Hezbollah, approved in a 22-3 vote by the Israeli cabinet over the weekend. The agreement involves the release of Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese citizen in jail in Israel for the murder of an Israeli family in 1979, and other Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners in exchange for, most likely, the remains of Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, whose capture sparked the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, and information on missing Israeli airman Ron Arad. Here is a good summary of the details of the agreement, and a timeline of the events leading up to the agreement can be found here.

First up is Jerusalem Post columnist and recent AIJAC visitor Herb Keinon, who notes that the cabinet’s decision is a quintessentially Israeli one. Keinon argues that the decision is reflective of four key characteristics of Israeli society. First is the immense sense of solidarity in Israeli society, brought about in part by the country’s small size and sense of vulnerability, and the feeling that what happened to one soldier and his family could happen to anyone. Second is Israel’s ability to find short-term solutions to the problems facing the country. Third is Israeli society’s penchant for living for the moment. Although the decision was not made with an eye to the possible long-term consequences, Keinon argues, that in itself represents the fourth key characteristic: addressing tomorrow’s problems tomorrow. For his full argument, CLICK HERE.

Next up is Ynetnews commentator Roee Nahmias, who argues that the agreement is a victory for Hezbollah and its Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, though not a complete one. Nahmias points out that by securing Kuntar’s release, Nasrallah has fulfilled a Hezbollah promise and done so at no great cost to Hezbollah, since it secured its most sought after prisoner in exchange for two Israeli soldiers who are both  presumed dead. The deal also represents another domestic victory for Nasrallah, coming on the heels of the Doha Agreement between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government. Finally, he argues, the exchange confirms for Hezbollah that its “modus operandi” of violence is succeeding, and wonders what will be the group’s next target. For the full analysis, CLICK HERE.

Finally, leading Haaretz correspondents Avi Issacharoff and Amos Harel tackle what they call “five myths” about the current prisoner swaps being negotiated between Israel and Hezbollah and, potentially, between Israel and Hamas involving Gilad Shalit. In examining recent claims and statements by Israeli officials regarding the prisoner exchanges, they conclude that some of these claims are “quite detached from reality.” Contrary to these statements, they argue that exchanging live prisoners for soldiers’ remains is not unprecedented; the decision to exchange prisoners with Hezbollah is not a security issue; Israel may not be able to release Palestinian prisoners into the West Bank; the opening of the Rafah crossing depends more on Egypt than on Shalit’s release; and Hamas does not seem able to control the other Palestinian factions in Gaza. For their complete analysis of these five “myths”, CLICK HERE.

Readers may also be interested in:

  • Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that the government’s decision to enter the prisoner exchange was “a painful issue” but that it reflects the fact that no other country fights for life like Israel does.
  • And PA President Mahmoud Abbas told an Arab Union summit that little progress had been made in peace negotiations between the PA and Israel.
  • The third round of indirect talks between Israel and Syria are set to resume Tuesday.
  • Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem again denied Syria has a nuclear program but wished that it did.
  • A fascinating account of the recent French court proceedings and on-going controversy surrounding the video footage of 12 year-old Palestinian Muhammed al-Dura allegedly being shot by Israeli forces at the outset of the Second Intifida.

A very Israeli decision

By Herb Keinon
The Jerusalem Report, June 30, 2008

Much will be said and written in the coming days about Sunday’s cabinet decision approving the release of Samir Kuntar, four Hizbullah fighters, an undetermined number of Palestinian prisoners, dozens of Hizbullah and Palestinian bodies, and information on the disappearance of four Iranian diplomats in exchange for Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, both now presumed dead, and a Hizbullah report on the fate of Ron Arad.

But one thing is clear. This decision reflects some key characteristics of Israeli society. Indeed, it is fair to say it was a typically Israeli decision – for better and for worse.

Visitors from abroad are generally struck by three things about Israel: It is a country that feels vibrant and very much alive; it is a country that is superb at finding short-term solutions to problems; and it is a country where there is feeling of greater solidarity than elsewhere in the world, where people genuinely do feel a degree of responsibility for one another.

To understand Israel it is necessary to understand how this is a land in which everything touches everyone, where the news is real and immediate and impacts everyone who lives here. The famous Israeli solidarity stems not only from an altruistic concern of all for their fellows, but also from a feeling of “there but for the grace of God go I,” so I’d best be concerned abut the other guy, because at some point in time I might want the other guy to be concerned about me.

There is almost no one in the country who doesn’t know someone who was killed or wounded during the second intifada; the country supported the decision to go to war in Lebanon in July 2006 because of a feeling that after the kidnappings of Gilad Schalit and Regev and Goldwasser, anyone’s kids could be next; and the country is worked up over the Iranian threat because the specter of a nuclear Iran is not a theoretical issue – it’s something real and frightening.

The country is small and feels vulnerable. The fact that the media has been dominated this last week by voices calling on the government to agree to the deal with Hizbullah came to some degree because people with opposing ideas were afraid to voice them, not only because of the negative public reaction that awaited former chief of General Staff Moshe Ya’alon for his recent comments about the prisoner swaps, but also because of self-censorship: a fear emanating from the critics’ guts that one day it could be his kid on the line, and in that case he would turn every stone, and release every prisoner, to get him or her back.

That’s Israel. Everyone is near the firing line, and being near the firing line affects one’s vision.

The second national characteristic that the decision reflected was the country’s aptitude for finding short-term solutions. Israel is great at short-term solutions. That’s one of the beauties of the society. When there are problems, this country does not hang its head and say “there are no solutions,” it looks for one.

The way the country brought down terrorism casualties – from some 435 Israelis killed in 2002 to 13 killed last year – is proof of the nation’s ability to find short-term solutions. Remember, there were those who said there was “no military solution to terrorism.” Israel found one.

That much of the world is looking to Israel to solve the Iranian nuclear issue reflects an appreciation of the country’s ability to find solutions to problems.

Likewise, Israel will find a technological solution to the Kassam rockets. It might take a couple of years, but a solution will be found.

What’s the problem? The problem is that when we do find a solution, the enemy will then look for a way around it, and around and around we will go. Israel’s short-term problems are so daunting that we have little energy or patience to look for longer-term answers.

Sunday’s decision was a short-term solution. It brought to close a painful chapter in the country’s history. It provided relief to the families.

But what of the dangers, that the deal will encourage more kidnappings, that there will no longer be any incentive to keep kidnapped soldiers alive? Those are problems we will deal with when they prop up – and then we will find short-term solutions to them, as well. For now, the cabinet has said, let’s deal with the immediate problem, and the immediate problem is Goldwasser and Regev.

The final Israeli characteristic that was reflected loud and clear in the decision was that this is a society that lives for the moment, that lives in the here and now. This characteristic is what makes the country feel so vibrant, so alive. There is tremendous energy here in all kinds of different spheres, largely because we live for today, for the now, not knowing what the future may hold.

Sunday’s decision was a decision for the moment. It made us feel that we were doing our duty to the families of Regev and Goldwasser, who have suffered too long already. It made us feel good about ourselves, and how we – unlike our enemies – sanctify life, and are willing to give up a great deal on the off chance that the soldiers may indeed still be alive. It was a decision made very much with an eye on the now.

As for tomorrow, and how the decision will impact tomorrow? Well, tomorrow we’ll deal with tomorrow – that, after all, is the quintessential Israeli way.

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Hizbullah won again: Swap with Hizbullah a victory for terror group, but it didn’t get everything it wanted

By Roee Nahmias
Ynetnews, July 1, 2008

Following the approval of the swap with Hizbullah in Sunday’s government session, we can cautiously say that Hizbullah won again, although it won by points, rather than by knockout.
First, in the immediate future, Hizbullah and Nasrallah will deliver on what they promised – securing the release of Samir Kuntar, who killed the Haran family. However, this was not done in the way Hizbullah hoped. Initially, Nasrallah demanded the release of many Palestinian prisoners, as well as Arab-Israeli ones. He will not get most of it (Israel will only release a very small number of Palestinian prisoners.)
Another achievement is the price. We are talking about a relatively modest price for Israel, yet according to the prime minister’s statement at least, our two captives are no longer alive. Getting Kuntar in exchange for two dead soldiers is a pretty good bargain.

Thirdly, the question of “bargaining chips” – whether we like it or not, Nasrallah has methodically been able to take away the bargaining chips held by Israel. At this time Israel no longer holds any meaningful prisoners, and the Ron Arad affair will remain a mystery.
Fourthly, this is an achievement for Nasrallah’s approach. The way Hizbullah sees it, this is further evidence that their modus operandi is working. The first goal was to remove the IDF from south Lebanon – and it happened. Then came the issue of the prisoners – and this too has been achieved now. The next issue is the Shebaa Farms. Here too, Prime Minister Olmert recently declared that Israel is willing to discuss the issue in the framework of peace talks with Lebanon. Hizbullah ignored the second half of this sentence and went out to celebrate – “Israel’s withdrawal from the Shebaa Farms is a victory for the way of resistance,” they have been saying in the past two weeks.

Fifthly, this is a domestic Lebanese victory: While Nasrallah’s rivals have been struggling for a long time now, he boasts yet another victory. After he managed to enforce his will on Lebanon’s political establishment in the form of the “Doha Agreement” (or as it’s popularly known, the “capitulation agreement”) that gave him veto power on government decisions, he has another reason for celebration – he managed to enforce his will on Israel as well. Nasrallah gains a significant and morale-boosting achievement at a time when the political crisis in Lebanon is still alive and kicking.
Struggle to go on

Is the price we paid Hizbullah proper? This is a subject for debate within Israeli society, rather than Lebanese society. For Israel as well, the picture is not wholly dark. First of all, this is not the price Hizbullah demanded at the outset. Nasrallah is not the same confident Nasrallah he was before the war, but rather, a leader of an organization who is hiding somewhere in Lebanon and not moving around freely – moreover, it is doubtful whether Kuntar’s release would prompt any of Nasrallah’s rivals to support him. Still, in Shiite eyes in Lebanon this is a morale victory on Israel and this is no small matter.
And a final matter: Many in Israel, including myself, waited with great interest in the years 1999-2000 to see what Nasrallah will be doing if the IDF indeed withdraws from southern Lebanon. Will he end his armed struggle against Israel or will it continue, and what will be the excuse this time around? The answer came soon after: Several months before the IDF withdrew from southern Lebanon, Nasrallah started marking the next target: Liberating the Shebaa farms. This is the place to note that almost nobody in Lebanon heard about these “farms” and nobody thought of demanding them.
Nasrallah, after digging through the archives, managed to identify a plot of land that was shrouded in controversy from the days of the French Mandate. Ever since he came up with the idea, his television network was instructed to air countless broadcasts regarding the “occupied Lebanese territory,” even though it’s Syrian territory. For the time being, Syria is refusing to renounce it. A Syrian source even said so explicitly this week. This is not the issue. It is very possible that within a short period of time Nasrallah will accomplish his mission both on the issue of prisoners and, who knows, on the Shebaa Farms question.
So what will be the next step? Will he stop his armed struggle against Israel? When it comes to Nasrallah, predictions are dangers, but we can cautiously assume that abductions of soldiers will not be his top priority at this time. It would be a shame to jeopardize such successful statistics for him and risk a furious response from Israel.
Yet you can count on Nasrallah to find a new target for slamming Israel. Perhaps the Palestinian prisoners or Israel Air Force flights over Lebanon, or perhaps the “seven Lebanese village” in the north, which he already mentioned in the past. The struggle, regrettably, won’t end this time, for the simply reason that this is the Shiite militia’s raison d’etre.

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Five myths about prisoner swaps

By Avi Issacharoff and Amos Harel
Haaretz, June 29, 2008

It is going to be a dramatic, maybe even crucial, week for Israel in terms of dialogue. Sunday the government will review, and probably vote on, the deal with Hezbollah for Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, the Israel Defense Forces soldiers abducted by the group in July 2006.

Meanwhile, negotiations with Hamas over kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, who was taken in June 2006, resumed on Thursday. Soon we will see whether the tahadiyeh (cease-fire) is indeed furthering the chances of the corporal’s release, as government officials suggested in defending the truce.

That same cease-fire was put to an extreme test last week, and it will continue this week, after Palestinian militants launched missiles and mortars at towns around the Gaza Strip, and Israel responded by shutting down the crossings into Gaza.

This is a good chance to reexamine some recent claims by Israeli officials – ministers, officers and spokesmen. In some cases, what they are saying is quite detached from reality.

1. “Releasing live prisoners for bodies would constitute a dangerous precedent.”

Though the risks are debatable, doing so would by no means form a precedent. Israel already released 45 live prisoners for the bodies of IDF soldiers Yossi Fink and Rahamim Alshayach in 1996. It released another 60 Lebanese prisoners in exchange for the body of naval commando Itamar Ilya.

2. “The decision on the prisoner exchange with Hezbollah is a security issue.”

Inaccurate. The ministers are facing a moral and emotional issue. They will be asked to weigh the government’s commitment to bringing home Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad against its commitment to the Goldwassers and the Regevs. Security issues are measured by risks, and Samir Kuntar, whom the government is considering releasing in exchange for Regev and Goldwasser – despite his potential importance in a future deal for Arad – poses little risk. He is a child killer, and many say he should rot in prison for life, but he is not an arch-terrorist.

3. “Palestinian prisoners from the West Bank can be released into the Gaza Strip.”

Maybe. While Israel debates the question, Hamas on Saturday said it would not consider it – potentially rendering the doubts and discussions in Jerusalem irrelevant.

4. “Opening the Rafah crossing depends on Shalit’s release.”

Opening this crossing depends on Egypt as much as Israel. But it is doubtful whether Egypt wants the crossing opened, since such a move would immediately lead to thousands of Palestinians flooding into the Sinai Peninsula. The last time this happened, when Hamas broke through the border fence between Gaza and Egypt, it was a traumatic experience for the Egyptians.

5. “Hamas can control all the other factions in Gaza.”

So far, reality has proven this assumption to be erroneous. Since the tahadiyeh came into effect, Islamic Jihad and Fatah’s militias have fired rockets at Israel – even though this goes against Hamas’ interests – making a complete cease-fire an unrealistic goal at this point.

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