Gideon Levy’s Hot Air on Prisoner Releases

In an Op-Ed Sept. 10, 2006 calling on Israel to free Arab prisoners, (“Free them, now”), Ha’aretz’s Gideon Levy is free with the facts. He repeatedly accuses Israel of holding 15 Lebanese “civilians.” For instance, he writes:

Israel also cannot announce that it won’t negotiate and at the same time abduct 15 Lebanese civilians or half a Palestinian government and a quarter of its parliament. If it won’t negotiate, why does it conduct abductions? And if Israel will negotiate, why not frankly say so and conduct negotiations quickly and with flexibility? If the Lebanese civilians were not abducted to serve as bargaining cards, which anyway did not work, maybe soldiers Omar Suwad, Adi Avitan and Benny Avraham wouldn’t have been abducted. (Emphasis added)

Levy is not specific about these alleged 15 Lebanese civilians, and their identity is particularly difficult to ascertain because the passage’s chronology is ambiguous and even contradictory. First, he lumps together the 15 Lebanese with imprisoned Palestinian (Hamas) leaders and Israel’s announcement that it won’t negotiate, explicitly stating that all three belong to the same vintage, and that the Lebanese were captured during this summer’s conflict with Hezbollah. Next, he suggests that the Lebanese civilians were captured prior to the abduction of Suwad, Avidan and Avraham, Israeli soldiers taken by Hezbollah on Oct. 7, 2000. So, then, which is it? Were these so-called Lebanese civilians captured in summer 2006 or prior to October 2000?

Lebanese Captured: Summer 2006

Supposing that Levy meant the 15 Lebanese were captured this summer, is it possible they were civilians? A review of recent media reports, including from those of Levy’s own Ha’aretz, overwhelmingly show that the Lebanese captured by Israel during this summer’s conflict with Hezbollah are Hezbollah operatives, not civilians.

* On Aug. 8, Ha’aretz’s Amos Harel reported on the capture of Hussein Ali Sleiman, “a Shi’ite from Burj el-Barajneh in Beirut, [who] said he had been in Hezbollah training camps since he was 15 and had taken part in two exercises in Iran together with dozens of Hezbollah activists.” He also said “he had taken part in the kidnapping of two IDF reservists on July 12” (“In IDF tape, Hezbollah man admits kidnap role”).

* On Aug. 2, Ha’aretz covered an Israeli commando raid deep in Lebanon, reporting:

In Baalbek, the commandos captured five Hezbollah militants . . . Hezbollah denied that any of its fighters had been captured, but Lebanese security sources confirmed that the commandos had snatched five low-ranking members of the guerilla group (“IDF commandos nab five low-level Hezbollah men in Baalbek raid,” Amos Harel and Yoav Stern).

* On July 24, 2006 CBC News reported:

Israeli troops captured two Hezbollah guerillas Monday during fierce fighting near Bint Jbeil, considered to be an important stronghold of the militants, Brig.-Gen. Alon Friedman said.

* Jerusalem Post radio reported on Aug. 6:

At least 10 Hezbollah operatives were killed and three were captured overnight. (BBC Worldwide Monitoring)

* On Aug. 14, USA Today reported:

In more than four weeks of fighting, Israeli commandos have captured about 20 Hezbollah operatives, Israel’s military says. (Yaakov Katz, “Israeli comando missions come out of shadows”)

* Reporting on an Israeli Aug. 19 raid on Boudai, west of Baalbek, Joshua Mitnick of the Washington Times stated:

The Israeli spokesman declined to comment on reports that the commando unit captured two Hezbollah operatives. (“Israeli raid aims to cut off arms resupply,” Aug. 20)

Lebanese Captured: Prior to October 2000

As for Lebanese detained in Israel prior to 2000, their numbers fluctuate depending on the year and the source consulted. According to a 1997 report by Human Rights Watch, Israel held 52 Lebanese at the time. The report, “Without Status or Protection,” identifies 21 of them. Of these, all are accused of being Hezbollah members, receiving unauthorized military training, transporting weapons, or similar charges–not indicators that they are civilians. Tellingly, the report does not mention civilian detainees.

A May 2000 New York Times article states:

Aside from [guerilla leaders] Sheik Obeid and Mr. Dirani, the Israeli authorities say they are holding 15 other Lebanese prisoners, who have been convicted of attacks in the former Israeli-held zone in southern Lebanon. (Joel Greenberg, May 30, 2000)

All but three of the Lebanese prisoners have since been released. They are Samir Kuntar, who notoriously murdered toddler Smadar Haran, her father Danny, and a policeman; Yahia Skaff, a Sunni Muslim accused of taking part in a 1978 attack near Haifa in which 11 Fatah terrorists infiltrated Israel by sea and killed 35; and Nassim Nasir, a Lebanese-born Israeli citizen, arrested in 2002 and convicted of spying for Hezbollah.

Prisoner Releases: “A Breath of Fresh Air”?

Levy’s theory, totally divorced from history and reality, is:

A prisoner release could provide a breath of fresh air. There is hardly a family in the territories that has not had one of its sons in prison, and it is difficult to describe how such a battered society would respond to such an Israeli gesture. It would not be considered weakness, but the generosity of occupiers. Does anyone understand what kind of dizzying political change could develop from the release of Marwan Barghouti, for example?

Levy writes as if Israel has never once released Arab prisoners in the past. In fact, Israel has released thousands of Arab prisoners, mostly Palestinians, but also scores of others, including Lebanese. And far from spurring moderation and reconciliation, as Levy predicts, releases have hardened attitudes and brought on more Arab violence.

In particular, Levy’s colleague, Ha’aretz journalist Nadav Shragai on Sept. 18, 2006 reported on a document released by Almagor Terror Victims Association, which

issued a list of 14 major attacks carried out or engineered by released terrorists, including the 2002 Park Hotel attack in Netanya (29 killed, 155 injured), and the 2002 Karkur Junction attack (14 killed, 42 injured), the suicide attack at Jerusalem’s Cafit Cafe (11 killed, 20 injured), and the 2003 suicide attack at Cafe Hillel, also in Jerusalem, in which seven people were killed and many more were injured.

In addition, just six months before Hezbollah captured and killed Avitan, Avraham and Suwad, Israel fulfilled a Supreme Court ruling and released 13 Lebanese prisoners on April 19, 2000. (AP, “Eyal Warshavksy, “Israel releases Lebanese prisoners,” April 19, 2000)

Other releases of Lebanese prisoners include:

* Jan. 13, 2000: Israel released 27 Lebanese prisoners, including 12 Hezbollah fighters, in exchange for two South Lebanon Army soldiers, ahead of talks with Syria. This move did not soften Hezbollah’s stance towards the Jewish state. As Agence France-Presse reported that day:

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah told the Qatari satellite television station Al-Jazira Thursday the group would lead a fight against normalization with Israel if it makes a peace deal with Syria.

“The fight against normalization is as important as the armed struggle, because it can limit damage and block the Zionist plan” towards normalization, Sheikh Nasrallah said.

* Dec. 27, 1999: As a goodwill gesture, Israel released five Lebanese fighters ahead of peace talks with Syria. The released prisoners did not reciprocate the goodwill. AP reported that day:

Hours after their release from an Israeli jail, two Hezbollah guerrillas vowed Monday to rejoin the fight against Israeli occupation forces in southern Lebanon.

“Resistance is in our blood,” said Hashem Fahs. (“Freed Hezbollah guerillas vow to rejoin the fight against Israel”)

* June 26, 1998: The remains of an Israeli soldier are exchanged for the bodies of 40 Lebanese guerrillas and the release of 60 prisoners, members of Hezbollah, Amal and other violent groups. Ten were released from Israeli jails and 50 from a South Lebanon Army prison in southern Lebanon.

* Jan. 29, 2004: Israel exchanged 23 Lebanese prisoners (plus 400 Palestinians and five other Arabs) for the bodies of Avitan, Abraham and Suwad, in addition to businessman Elchanan Tannenbaum. The released Lebanese included two high profile prisoners, Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid of Hezbollah and Mustafa Dirani of the Amal movement. Their release did not cause Hezbollah to lay down its arms, or to stop stockpiling its missiles along Israel’s borders, and did not lead to any other “dizzying political change,” contrary to Levy’s presumption. In fact, immediately following the release Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah promised more kidnappings. The Associated Press reported on Jan. 30, 2004:

“The next time, I promise you, they will be captured alive,” [Nasrallah] said at a welcoming ceremony for a group of around 20 prisoners released by Israel. “Our fighters will not have such a heavy hand as they did with the three soldiers.”

Hamas also appeared to draw inspiration from Hezbollah Friday when spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin told reporters that the radical Palestinian movement’s armed wing was already planning to abduct soldiers with a view to a prisoners swap. (“Prisoners exchange fails to dampen Israel-Hezbollah tension”)

The release of Palestinian prisoners:

From the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993 until Nov. 9, 1998, Israel released 7,638 Palestinians (Government Press Office). Other significant releases include:

* June 2, 2005: 398 prisoners released as the second half of Ariel Sharon’s February 2005 goodwill gesture

* Feb. 21, 2005: 500 prisoners released, the first part of Sharon’s goodwill pledge to release 900 Palestinian prisoners

* Dec. 27, 2004: 159 prisoners released as a goodwill gesture to the new Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas

* Sept. 9, 1999: 199 prisoners released as part of an interim land-for-security deal

* Oct. 15, 1999: 109 Palestinian prisoners (and 42 inmates from other Arab countries) released as part of an interim peace deal

In addition to the Jan. 29, 2004 prisoner exchange, in which 400 Palestinians were released, Israel has twice in the past undertaken exchanges involving hundreds of Palestinians:

* May 1985: Three Israeli soldiers are traded for 1,150 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners. Associated Press reports:

The lopsided deal comes under harsh criticism that intensifies after the freed prisoners play important roles in a Palestinian uprising that began in 1987. (July 7, 2006)

* Nov. 24, 1983: Israel exchanges six Israeli soldiers for 4,600 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners.

As the facts dramatically underscore that Israel’s release of some 10,000 prisoners in the last two decades has yielded no “dizzying political change,” Levy’s claim that a prisoner release could yield “a breath of fresh air” is nothing more than stale hot air.

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