At 9 a.m. Wednesday, five Lebanese prisoners – Samir Kantar, a Lebanese Palestinian Liberation Front Member who has been detained for murder in Israel since 1979; and Khodor Zidan, Maher Kurani, Mohammed Sarur and Hussein Suleiman, Hezbollah fighters captured during the 2006 war – will cross the Israeli border and enter Lebanon as part of an Israel-Hezbollah prisoner swap deal that has been in the works for months. The swap will close Lebanon’s detainee file with Israel, making Lebanon the first Arab country not at peace with the Jewish State to do so.
In exchange for the live prisoners and the remains of 200 Hezbollah fighters and Palestinians, Hezbollah will be handing over Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, Israeli servicemen who were taken hostage by party militants in July 2006, prompting the 34-day war. Both are presumed dead.
This will be the eighth prisoner swap to take place between Israel and Hezbollah since 1991, with the most recent deal taking place in late 2007. Negotiations over potential deals have been ongoing since late 2006, under the auspices of the UN.
The move has been met with some controversy, however. Aside from the release of Kantar, who is vilified in Israel for the brutal nature of his crime, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that Hezbollah has not kept its end of the deal. Hezbollah had been asked to provide intelligence on the fate of Ron Arad, an Israeli pilot who went missing in Lebanon in 1986. Though Olmert declared that the report, which stated that Arad died in captivity, was inadequate, the Israeli cabinet gave the final okay for the deal Tuesday afternoon. Hezbollah had also demanded intelligence on the whereabouts of the four Iranians who went missing in 1982, though word has yet to appear on the matter.
A hero’s welcome has been planned for the fighters, who will first cross through Naqoura before being transported to the Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut, where they will meet with President Michel Sleiman, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Speaker Nabih Berri. Ceremonies are expected to occur in Naqoura and the Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs, where Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s speech will be broadcast on a massive screen.
The International Committee of the Red Cross will oversee the swap and will transport the bodies in 11 Red Cross trucks from Jordan. Lebanese daily al-Akhbar has reported that the fighters will appear in combat attire. Celebratory banners and flags decorate the main highway from Israel through Naqoura and Saida.
Who’s who in the swap:
Forty-six-year-old Samir Kantar is the longest serving Arab prisoner in Israel. A Druze member of the Palestinian Liberation Front, Kantar was arrested in Israel in 1979 and convicted of the murder of Danny Haran; his four-year-old daughter, Eilat; and two policemen. He was handed down four life sentences. While behind bars, Kantar earned a degree from Israeli Open University in political science, and he married, and later divorced, an Israeli Arab woman.
Kantar had originally entered Israel with four other militants on a rubber boat, departing from Sur with the intention to attack Nahariya.
Hezbollah had previously attempted to secure Kantar’s release numerous times, most recently in 2006, when party militants kidnapped Regev and Goldwasser, and started the July War. Kantar has been hailed by Hezbollah as a hero, and according to some sources, chief among them al-Akhbar, may run in next year’s parliamentary elections. Many Lebanese who lionize Kantar claim that he is innocent of the charges and that those he murdered were legitimate targets.
Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser
On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah militants crossed into northern Israel and captured two Israeli soldiers in what it called “Operation Honest Promise.”
First Sergeant Eldad Regev and Master Sergeant Ehud Goldwasser were taken, according to Hezbollah, as leverage to initiate a prisoner swap to free Samir Kantar and others held by Israel. The war following their capture resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 Lebanese and the destruction of much of southern Lebanon.
Eldad Regev was a law student at Bar Ilan University and had been living with his older brother after his mother’s passing. He was called to duty before finishing school and was 26 years old at the time of his capture. Regev is described by his father as “laid back but patriotic.”
Ehud Goldwasser lived in Nahariya prior to his capture and worked at Technion, the Israeli Institute of Technology. He had been married less than a year and was 31 at the time of his capture.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has declared both soldiers killed in action, though Hezbollah has not confirmed their deaths.
Khodor Zidan, Maher Kurani, Mohammad Surour and Hussein Suleiman
Khodor Zidan, Maher Kurani, Mohammad Surour, and Hussein Suleiman are Hezbollah militants who were captured by Israel during the 2006 July War. The names of the militants were only recently released to the press.
Thirty-two-year-old Maher Kurani is currently married with one child, and has been a member of the Resistance since 1992. He was captured 11 kilometers west of Yater, four days before the end of the July War. Little is known about the other three militants.
Killed in 1978, Dalal Mughrabi was a female Palestinian militant and Resistance icon who orchestrated and participated in what came to be known as the Coastal Road Massacre, which left 37 Israelis and Americans dead and 71 wounded.
Ehud Barak, who would later become Israel’s prime minister, shot Mughrabi point blank during a shootout that occurred after Mughrabi and her unit of 11 members hijacked two buses headed to Tel Aviv. The fleet had entered Israel after leaving Lebanon on boats and landed on a beach north of Tel Aviv. Three days after the massacre, Israel launched Operation Litany against the PLO in Lebanon.
Born on May 5, 1958 in Israel, Ron Arad was the navigator of an Israeli F-4 Phantom jet when he bailed out of his damaged aircraft over the town of Sidon in Lebanon on October 6, 1986. Arad was subsequently captured by Amal. Over the following years, numerous unsuccessful attempts were made to trade him in a prisoner swap.
Rami Igra, head of Mossad's department for prisoners and missing persons at the time, concluded after a lengthy investigation that Arad most likely died around the time of Operation Maydun, conducted by the Israeli army sometime between May 4 and May 5 in 1988. Igra believes that Arad was killed by his captors either before they left to fight the IDF, or he died while trying to escape. Other theories claim that Arad was handed over to Hezbollah during this time.
Before his purported disappearance in 1988, numerous letters from Arad were received by his family in Israel, and in 2006, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation aired footage of Arad believed to have been taken in 1988. Hezbollah has claimed in a recent report that Arad is no longer alive, though the details surrounding his death are still unclear. Israel has claimed that the report handed to them by Hezbollah is “completely inadequate.”
Ahmad Motevaselian, Sayyed Mohsen Mousavi, Taghi Rastegar Mohgadam and Kazem Akhavan were allegedly kidnapped by Israeli forces en route from Tripoli to Beirut at a Lebanese Forces checkpoint during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon on July 4, 1982. As part of the prisoner swap, information on Ron Arad was to be exchanged for information on their fate.
Efforts to locate the whereabouts of the three diplomats and their driver have failed. Some allege that they were transported to Israeli bases by boats, though Israel has dismissed this claim as ridiculous, stating that it had nothing to do with the entire episode and the Iranians were killed by the Lebanese Forces. Iran has demanded that the Red Cross locate the whereabouts of the men, but it is widely presumed that they are dead and buried at an unknown location in Lebanon.
Motevaselian was the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Baablak, working as a military attaché; Sayyed Mohsen Mousavi was Iran’s charge d’aAffaires in Beirut; Akhavan was a journalist for the Iran News Agency; and Moghadam was a driver and technician for the embassy. The Iranian Embassy in Beirut has consistently stated that the diplomats are alive and still being held in Israeli prisons. Other Lebanese sources say they were executed and buried in Karantina.
Lebanese prisoners who were released from Israel in 2004 claimed that they had met the Iranians in a Haifa prison in the late 1980s, and Nassim Nisr claimed upon his release that he had also spotted the men. Family members of the diplomats have echoed these reports.