Hizbullah secretary-general Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah gave renewed hope to the families of prisoners in Israeli jails last month, when he declared that a German mediation over an exchange of prisoners with Israel should cover all Arab detainees in Israel, not just Lebanese prisoners. In a daring operation on October 7, Hizbullah captured three Israeli soldiers in the occupied Sheba’ah Farms area. A week later, Hizbullah announced that it had arrested a high-ranking Israeli military intelligence officer after luring him from his European base to Beirut.
In a speech on December 13 at an annual iftar banquet held in Beirut by the Islamic Resistance Support Committee (Hay’at Da’am al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah), Nasrallah emphasized that the goals and fruits of Hizbullah’s struggle transcend parochial, factional and national interests, saying: “It is not true that the issue is about 19 Lebanese prisoners. It is about Arab prisoners. We consider ourselves to be concerned about any detainee held by this enemy, whether he is Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Jordanian or other.”
Nasrallah also demanded “the maps showing the location of the mines planted by Israel in southern Lebanon” before its retreat on May 24 after 22 years of occupation. He said: “It is important that Lebanon receive these maps in order to dismantle the mines quickly because they are killing our people daily.”
Hizbullah’s list of demands also includes the repatriation of the bodies of resistance martyrs who are buried in occupied Palestine, as well as information on the fate of those who have gone missing or been detained since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Some have interpreted the last demand as including information on the fate of the four Iranian diplomats who were kidnapped by the Lebanese pro-Israel Phalangist militia north of Beirut during the 1982 invasion and who are believed to have been handed over to the Israelis.
The Hizbullah secretary-general also expressed outrage at the double standards employed by the international community in dealing with the issue of the prisoners; the Israeli soldiers have touched off a flurry of contacts with Hizbullah and Lebanon to secure their release, whereas thousands of Arabs are in Israeli jails with little international interest. He said: “Ever since the soldiers and the officer were captured, there hardly remains anyone who has not contacted us, secretly or openly. However, all the detainees held in Israel were apparently not worthy of any move by the international community. Appeals to the United Nations, its secretary-general, the Security Council and the General Assembly all went in vain. Every time we were contacted we felt insulted because no one enquired about the thousands of detainees [in Israeli jails]. But for the sake of a bunch of soldiers and spies they undertake contacts.”
Nasrullah’s speech came hours after al-Mustaqbal newspaper, owned by Lebanon’s prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, said in a front-page report that it had obtained “special information” indicating that the Israeli soldiers were alive after having been treated for wounds they sustained during their capture.
The paper added that a German mediator in Beirut has reached a preliminary agreement for a two-stage prisoner-exchange. In the first stage the three Israeli soldiers would be exchanged for 14 Lebanese prisoners, including Shaykh ‘Abd al-Karim ‘Ubayd of Hizbullah and and Hajj Mustafa al-Dirani, leader of the Believers’ Resistance (al-Muqawamah al-Mu’minah). They were kidnapped from their homes in 1989 and 1994 respectively. This group would also include Samir al-Qontar, the longest-held Lebanese prisoner, who is serving a life sentence for a 1979 resistance operation in northern Israel. In the second stage, the intelligence officer will be exchanged for the remaining Lebanese prisoners, according to al-Mustaqbal, which did not mention the non-Lebanese Arab prisoners.
However, Nasrallah stressed that there has been no breakthrough in the mediation. He played down the prospect of a swift resolution, saying that Hizbullah is in no hurry to resolve the matter. He described “the talk about a time frame” for a prisoner exchange as having “no basis in fact.” But he added that an exchange could take place the next day if the German mediators “come tonight with an Israeli acceptance of our demands.” Hizbullah had earlier confirmed that negotiations were under way but has refused to reveal any details.
Hizbullah has also refused to let representatives of international organizations see the prisoners, or to give details about the condition of the captured soldiers, pointing out that it is not in the business of giving information to its arch-enemy “for free.” In his speech, Nasrallah said that if Hizbullah is to reveal information about the condition of the captured soldiers for “humanitarian reasons,” then it must get a “humanitarian price” in return. “If, through giving information on the three soldiers, I can secure the release of detainees held for 10 or 20 years, isn’t this a humanitarian deed?” he asked rhetorically.
Negotiations are being conducted by Germany, which has in the past mediated prisoner exchanges between Hizbullah and Israel. In 1998, Germany brokered an exchange in which Israel released 60 prisoners and returned the remains of 40 resistance fighters in exchange for the remains of three naval commandos killed deep inside Lebanon a year earlier. The current initiative was launched during a Middle East tour by German chancellor Gerhard Schroder in October. A German security team accompanying the Chancellor reportedly held meetings with Hizbullah officials and discussed a possibile exchange of prisoners.
Israeli leaders have sent out confused and mixed signals in response to the news of the German initiative. Speaking to Israel Radio on December 12, Israeli chief of general staff Lt-Gen Shaul Mofaz said that, as part of any deal, Israel would demand the return of air force navigator Ron Arad, whose warplane was shot down over the southern Lebanese city of Sidon in 1986, as well as four other soldiers who went missing during the 1982 invasion. Hizbullah and its main supporter, Iran, both deny any knowledge about Arad’s fate.
The ostensibly dovish Israeli justice minister, Yossi Beilin, described Sayyid Nasrallah’s conditions for freeing the captured soldiers as “unrealistic.” Speaking to reporters after meeting the families of the three soldiers, Beilin said: “He (Nasrallah) said only yesterday if you give everything I want then we can quickly finish the negotiations. But this is not negotiations and his demands are unrealistic.”
Ephraim Sneh, Israel’s deputy defence minister, said on December 12 that Israel is likely to release both ‘Ubayd and Dirani. The Israeli English-language daily The Jerusalem Post (December 13, 2000) quoted Sneh as saying: “We will have to pay. No one expects to get our boys back without something in return. We are not naive.”
‘Ubayd and Dirani have been held without trial or charge as bargaining chips for Arad, in clear violation of international law and human-rights conventions. On December 12, the Israeli supreme court rejected an appeal by both ‘Ubayd and Dirani to end their “administrative detention”, confirming a ruling by a Tel Aviv court in July that the two should continue to be held as they remain a threat to state security. During the recent supreme court hearing, a judge reportedly asked defence attorney Zvi Reich: “Are you demanding the release of ‘Ubayd and Dirani, and then we go down on our knees so that they return our soldiers?”
Seventeen other Lebanese remain in Israeli jails or are unaccounted for. The Follow-up Committee for the Support of the Lebanese Detainees in Israel has provided the names of 15 Lebanese prisoners. It added that the whereabouts of four other detainees, whom Israel claims to have freed, remain unknown. Moreover, according to Palestinian minister for prisoners’ affairs Hisham ‘Abd al-Raziq, Israel continues to hold some 2,200 Palestinian prisoners in violation of the peace accords signed between the Jewish state and the Palestinian National Authority. In addition, more than six hundred Palestinians have been detained since September 28, the beginning of the current al-Aqsa intifada.