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Israel Signs Prisoner Exchange with Hezbollah

Israeli officials have signed a prisoner exchange agreement with the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah. VOA's Jim Teeple reports the deal, which was signed late Monday, is controversial in Israel.

After weeks of negotiations, Israeli officials signed the prisoner exchange agreement with Hezbollah, in the presence of a United Nations official.

Under the deal, Israel will release Samir Kantar - a Lebanese guerrilla who is serving multiple life terms - as well as four Hezbollah prisoners, in exchange for two Israeli soldiers captured in the cross-border raid by Hezbollah in 2006 that sparked the second Lebanon War. Israel will also return dozens of bodies of Hezbollah militants killed in military action.

The two Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, are believed to be dead. The swap has sparked controversy in Israel. Relatives of the victims killed by Samir Kantar have gone to court to block his release. Kantar was convicted of killing a policeman and then a second man and his four-year-old daughter. A second child in the family died after being accidentally smothered by its mother who was trying to hide from Kantar.

Speaking recently on Israel Radio, Immigration Minister Yaakov Edri acknowledged the controversy, but said the government is bowing to a request from the Israeli military.

Edri says Israel's military chief convinced the Cabinet Israel must get its soldiers back home, whether they are dead or alive.

The exchange is scheduled to take place next week.

Under the deal, Hezbollah is also to give Israel information on what happened to Ron Arad, an Israeli airman who was captured in 1986 after his plane was shot down over Lebanon. In return, Israel will give Hezbollah information on what it knows about the fate of four Iranian diplomats who went missing in Lebanon in 1982. Both Arad and the Iranians are believed to be dead.

Meanwhile, Israel has reopened cargo crossing points into the Gaza Strip, after an unusual request by Egyptian mediators to do so. The crossing have been repeatedly closed by Israel because of Palestinian rocket and mortar fire since a truce between Israel and Hamas went into effect on June 19. Egyptian mediators brokered the truce and are trying to bring about a prisoner exchange of their own between Israel and Hamas that would see Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit freed in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian militants that Israel holds.