Israeli prisoner swap draws anger

tel aviv | Israel has been facing criticism of a prisoner swap deal with the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah.

At press time, the exchange was scheduled to occur on Thursday, Jan. 29.

An imprisoned Lebanese guerrilla, Mustafa Dirani, testified Tuesday, Jan. 27, that Israeli interrogators tortured him under investigation. Israeli prosecutors denied the charges.

Dirani is one of hundreds of Arab prisoners to be released for an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers — all kidnapped by Hezbollah in October 2000.

The prisoners to be freed by Israel include 400 Palestinians, 34 people from Arab countries and a German convicted of spying for Hezbollah.

Terror victims’ groups have threatened to petition the Israeli Supreme Court, possibly delaying the swap, should militants on the list prove to have been directly involved in terrorist attacks.

Security officials criticized the fact that two foreigners who planned to carry out suicide attacks on Hezbollah’s behalf are among the 435 prisoners scheduled to be released in the deal.

On Jan. 27, a white bus filled with prisoners drove into the Sharon Prison in central Israel under heavy guard. Prisoners peeked from tiny wire mesh-covered windows, and some tried unsuccessfully to spread their fingers in V-for-victory signs.

The German-mediated swap was supposed to follow a negotiated timetable: The prisoners from Arab countries and the German would be flown Wednesday, Jan. 28, to Germany. Israel will release the Palestinians into the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and will hand over 59 bodies of Lebanese militants killed in clashes with Israeli troops.

All the Palestinians had less than three years to serve and were not involved in wounding or killing Israelis, according to a list released Jan. 27. Some Palestinians greeted the list with disappointment, noting Israel has often freed prisoners convicted of nonviolent offenses on Muslim holidays or as part of peace talks.

Dirani is among the most prominent of the prisoners named. Israeli forces burst into his home in Lebanon in 1994, kidnapped him and held him without charges for a decade, yet allowed him access to its court system to sue the government for torture.

Israel accuses Dirani of helping capture Arad, who was caught alive after ejecting from his plane over Lebanon in 1986.