Israeli critics question lopsided prisoner swap

Associated Press Published: July 17, 2008
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JERUSALEM (AP) -- Critics of Israel's lopsided prisoner exchange with Lebanese guerrillas said Wednesday that such deals only encourage more hostage-taking - a fear underscored by Gaza militants who said the swap proves that kidnapping is the only language Israel understands.

The deal, in which a notorious Lebanese attacker, four other militants and the bodies of 199 Arab fighters were traded for two dead Israeli soldiers, closed a painful chapter from Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon.

But it also raised questions about whether Israel should reconsider its policy of bringing back every soldier from the battlefield at just about any cost.

Israel has been carrying out unequal prisoner swaps for decades, including handing over 4,600 Palestinian and Lebanese captives in 1983 in exchange for six captured Israeli soldiers. In the past it's even traded live prisoners for bodies, as it did Wednesday.

The rationale for such trades was a wartime ethic seen as essential in Israel's early days to instilling loyalty and commitment from its troops.

In today's world of asymmetric warfare - with militant groups increasingly focused on kidnapping as a way to pressure Israel and with the fight against terrorism now a worldwide challenge - the lopsided swaps could have graver consequences than in the past.

"What we've done now has made kidnapping soldiers the most profitable game in town," said Israeli security expert Martin Sherman.

"There is absolutely no reason why Hezbollah should not invest huge resources now, along with Hamas, in the next kidnapping."

The issue is of immediate concern because the government is deeply involved in indirect negotiations to free its other captive soldier, Gilad Schalit, held by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. Unlike Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the two soldiers whose bodies were returned Wednesday, Schalit is believed to be alive.

Following this week's Cabinet vote that cleared the way for the Hezbollah deal, Construction Minister Zeev Boim, one of only three ministers to vote against it, said he was afraid the swap would make it harder for Israel to win the release of Schalit.

"No one should be surprised if Hamas will now raise the price for freeing him," he said.

Hamas made it clear Wednesday that it intended to do just that.

"As there was an honorable exchange today, we are determined to have an honorable exchange for our own prisoners" held in Israeli jails, Gaza's Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said. "Let them answer our demands." Israel holds about 10,000 Palestinians in prison.

Haniyeh's spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri went further, saying the swap "shows that the only successful way to free the prisoners is by kidnapping soldiers."

Explaining his opposition, Boim, the construction minister, said Wednesday: "We needed, in my opinion, to take this opportunity to change the rules we were dragged into many years ago, which have led to many lopsided deals."

But the Israeli military said the deal drove home the Jewish state's deep commitment to its soldiers.

"This painful process exemplifies Israel's moral commitment to secure the return of all of their soldiers sent out on operational missions," said a statement Wednesday from the Israeli Defense Forces. "It demonstrates a compelling moral strength which stems from Judaism, Israeli societal values and from the spirit of the IDF."

Wednesday's exchange involved freeing a Lebanese militant convicted of what many consider to be among the most gruesome crimes inflicted on Israelis in their history.

Samir Kantar was sentenced to three life terms for killing an Israeli man in front of his 4-year-old daughter, then killing the little girl by smashing her skull with his rifle butt.

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