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ISRAEL, LEBANON: Playing politics over corpses and prisoners

June 2, 2008 | 10:08 am

Hezbollah scored what some considered a small propaganda victory against Israel. It tried to undermine the Israeli government amid reports that a grand exchange of prisoners between the two parties is imminent.

In a pompous ceremony Sunday, cadres of the Shiite Muslim group welcomed the return of Lebanese-born Nasim Nisr, shown in the video below, an Arab Israeli who had been imprisoned in Israel for more than six years after being convicted of spying for Hezbollah.

On the other side of the border, Israelis were apparently caught off guard when they received the body parts of soldiers who were killed during the 2006 summer war. At first, it seemed like a goodwill gesture by Hezbollah. An International Red Cross official in Jerusalem, who carried out the exchange, called Hezbollah's move a "complete surprise."

But Hezbollah's game soon became clear.

The release of Nisr, who was due to be freed anyway, was described by the militant group as the result of a "swap deal" with the Jewish state, as it was described the Web site of Hezbollah's TV station, Al-Manar.

Sheikh Nabil Kawouk, a Hezbollah official, said during the return ceremony:

The sincere promise of his eminence Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah has been fulfilled. Despite all the problems in Lebanon, Hezbollah has never abandoned the cause of the detainees because it is in fact the biggest deposit. …There is no complete freedom, no complete sovereignty and no complete dignity as long as there is one detainee in Israeli jails. The detainees are the precise criterion that determine the Arab nature of this Umma. The way to liberate them is the way of the resistance.

Israelis soon caught on to Hezbollah's ploy. Israeli Prime Ministe Ehud Olmert rushed to call Hezbollah's gesture of handing the soldiers' body parts a "unilateral move. The Israeli daily, Haaretz, said that Hezbollah was trying to embarrass Israeli officials who say they do not negotiate for body parts.

The Hezbollah leader still has a score to settle with the new Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, who mentioned the return of all the prisoners during his speech at his swearing-in ceremony. Nasrallah is not willing to let the president of Lebanon win the prisoner jackpot; those prisoners are considered Hezbollah's private asset, not the Lebanese government's.

The burial of Jews in Israeli soil has a religious significance. Hezbollah has long tried to barter with Israel over the remains of soldiers fallen in Lebanon.

Hezbollah's attempt to portray a swap of bodies for prisoners came amid indirect talks between Israel and Hezbollah over the fate of two Israelis held by Hezbollah. Germans are trying to broker a deal between Israel and Hezbollah in which Lebanese prisoners would be traded for the two Israeli soldiers, whose capture in July 2006 sparked a 33-day war.

A German news Web site, Der Spiegel, said that an official German-brokered master plan for the swap was on the table waiting for Jerusalem's approval:

Berlin's master plan envisages that the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert release four Hezbollah militiamen captured in southern Lebanon during the war… In addition, Israel is to hand over the bodies of 10 Lebanese combatants as well as the remains of fighters from previous wars. It would also provide maps detailing the location of minefields Israeli troops set up in southern Lebanon. The list includes the name of a man who provokes Israeli fury like few others: Samir Kuntar, 45. In return, Hezbollah is prepared to hand over the bodies of Regev and Goldwasser. Nasrallah's negotiator Hajj Wafik never officially confirmed that the soldiers died but their death is now regarded as a fact in the secret talks.

It looks like a deal might be near. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier arrived in Lebanon over the weekend, possibly to grab some credit for an anticipated diplomatic breakthrough. Steinmeier told reporters after meeting Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora later on Sunday:

I hope this is a step in the direction of a prisoner exchange. … I am happy that preliminary steps were taken in that direction and hope that this creates a positive dynamic, building mutual trust. Quick progress will be in the interest of the victims and concerned parties.

Raed Rafei in Beirut

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East. You can subscribe by registering at the website here, logging in here and clicking on the World: Mideast newsletter box here.

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