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Israel to Exchange 400 Prisoners for Businessman Held by Hezbollah - 2004-01-28

Israel is to hand over hundreds of prisoners to the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah Thursday, in order to secure the release of just one of its citizens. The exchange is being supervised by German mediators who helped broker the agreement.

For some Israelis the cost of the prisoner exchange is too high.

But Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, insists that he has no choice but to agree to the terms to secure the life of Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannebaum, who was kidnapped by the Hezbollah more than three years ago.

Mr. Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, outlined the basis of the agreement to bring him home. "In return for our prisoners and Elhanan Tannebaum, Israel will release over 400 prisoners and detainees who are held in Israeli prison; these include both Palestinians, as well as Lebanese," he said.

Under the agreement, Israel will also receive the remains of three soldiers kidnapped and killed by the Hezbollah.

Although they have already been presumed dead by Israel, a father of one of the soldiers, Haim Avraham, says this should also have been confirmed by the Hezbollah. He accused the leader of the Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, of mentally torturing the families of the Israeli soldiers.

"Three and half years, we don't know nothing about [the fate] of our children," said Mr. Avraham. "We [only] know that the Germans will now finish the negotiations between the Hezbollah and the Israeli authorities."

The exchange is one of the biggest ever negotiated by Israel and includes the release of more than 30 prisoners from various Arab countries, 23 from Lebanon.

Zvi Rish, the Israeli lawyer for some of the most prominent of the Lebanese, says the hand-over will take place in Germany. "The deal will be completed via Frankfurt or another airport in Germany, in observation [and] in the presence of German mediators," he explained.

The rest of those to be released from Israeli custody are Palestinians. All 400 will be set free at various points in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.