With the aid of a top German intelligence negotiator, Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia have agreed to the largest prisoner swap ever to take place between the two longtime foes.
The detainees are expected to taste freedom under a Bavarian winter sun on Thursday.
Earlier this week, German Federal Intelligence Service coordinator Ernst Uhrlau said a deal had been secured that would see Israel release 440 Arab prisoners, including Hezbollah leaders Sheikh Abdel Krim Obeid and Mustafa Darin, and the bodies of 59 Lebanese. In exchange, Hezbollah is to release a kidnapped Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers previously missing in action. The swap is expected to take place at near Munich in southern Germany on Thursday.
German 'Hezbollah' to be released
Among the prisoners intended to be released is Steven Smyrek, a German citizen, who has been sitting in an Israeli prison for close to six years. According to Uhrlau, Smyrek will be flown directly to Germany. Israeli authorities arrested the 32-year-old in 1997 in Israel and sentenced him to 10 years in prison after he was convicted of membership in Hezbollah. However, the prosecutors in the case failed to prove accusations made by the Israeli secret service that Smyrek wanted to become a suicide bomber in Israel. Once he arrives in Germany, Smyrek will be a free man, Uhrlau said.
Intelligence service coordinator Uhrlau said he was pleased about the successful conclusion of negotiations between Israel and the Hezbollah. He also praised Iran for what he described as a positive role in the developments.
Bundeswehr to manage exchange
Government sources in Berlin told the German public broadcaster ARD that the German military, the Bundeswehr, would likely take over responsibility for transporting the prisoners between Lebanon, Israel and Germany. Like previous prisoner exchanges between Hezbollah and Israel, the actual swap is likely to take place here in Germany.
After making his announcement, Urhlau said the German government has been engaged in the Middle East on humanitarian grounds since the 1990s. The first victory for Germany’s role in prisoner release negotiations came at Christmas in 1999, when five Lebanese prisoners were allowed to return to Lebanon via Germany. During the summer of 2003, German negotiators began to make a major breakthrough.
According to Uhrlau, members of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service have been commuting to the Middle East as "honest" and "successful" brokers for both sides. Uhrlau also spent considerable time in the region as negotiations continued.
Searching for a lost pilot
A Palestinian student boy passes by a showing support for the Palestinian uprising.
A second deal between the Israelis and Hezbollah militants involves both sides cooperating to determine the fate of Israeli pilot Ron Arad, who was kidnapped after his plane was shot down over southern Lebanon in 1986. During the first two years of his capture, Arad maintained contact with his family, but he disappeared for good in 1988 and nothing has been heard from him since.
Some believe he is being held in an Iranian prison. Unofficially, it is believed that Arad is dead. Still, Israeli officials say they are prepared to hand over more Palestinian prisoners once it learns of Arad’s fate and he is returned to Israel, dead or alive.
Conflicting reports over German role
The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz is also reporting that the German government is taking an active role in negotiations over Arad. The paper reported sources saying German was also prepared to release three Arab prisoners being held here – two Lebanese and one Iranian – convicted in 1992 to life in prison for their roles in the terrorist bombing of a Greek restaurant in Berlin.
However, the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper quoted sources in Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s office saying the terrorists would not be part of a prisoner exchange. Rüdiger Portius, the defense attorney in the trial of the men behind the bombing of Mykonos restaurant, said he had heard nothing of a deal to release the men.
Meanwhile, in Israel, officials have begun exhuming the remains of 59 Hezbollah guerrilla fighters, which they hope to hand over at the Lebanese border later this week. Of the 436 living prisoners who will be turned over, 400 are Palestinians, 35 are citizens of other Arab countries, including 23 from Lebanon, and one German.
In preparation for Smyrek’s return, the public prosecutor in Hannover has lifted charges against the convicted Hezbollah spy that were filed in Germany, saying the case would be closed because of the time Smyrek has already spent in an Israeli prison.