Israel's agonizing debate over prisoner swaps

Agonizing over a prisoner deal is certainly nothing new for Israel. Several deals have been discussed in recent years, many of them involving Samir Kantar, a notorious Lebanese militant and convicted killer.

Exchanges with the country's enemies are seen as way of easing the pain of missing Israelis' families, but, some ask, at what cost?

Banners with portraits of captured Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev are hung outside an Israeli government cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 29, 2008. The cabinet voted overwhelmingly to swap a notorious Lebanese prisoner for the two soldiers, who are presumed to be dead. ((Dan Balilty/Associated Press))

Samir Kantar is something of a folk hero for many who believe in the Palestinian cause. But in Israel, where his case has taken on a highly symbolic significance, he is seen as an unrepentant monster who deserves to rot.

A Palestinian holds a poster showing Lebanese militant Samir Kantar during an April 2007 protest calling for his release from an Israeli prison. ((Muhammed Muheisen/Associated Press))

Kantar, a Lebanese member of the militant Palestine Liberation Front and a convicted killer, has been in an Israeli jail  for almost three decades for his role in one of the country's most notorious and brutal attacks — a 1979 cross-border raid by Lebanese militants into the northern Israeli town of Nahariya. A man and his two daughters died, along with a policeman.

Now, he is free. Kantar was a central figure in a controversial prisoner swap that has sparked a great deal of soul searching within Israel and reignited the long-standing debate about when and how to negotiate with the country's enemies.

Kantar, four Hezbollah prisoners and the bodies of dozens of fighters were returned to Lebanon in the exchange on July 16, 2008.

In return, Israel received the bodies of two soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who had been captured in the 2006 cross-border raid by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters that touched off a 34-day war. Israel had also been promised information on the fate of Ron Arad, an Israeli airman missing since being shot down over Lebanon in 1986. But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the report received was "absolutely unsatisfactory."

The exchange had been agreed to by Israel's cabinet and signed in the presence of a United Nations mediator earlier in July 2008.

At the time, Yossi Beilin, a Knesset member known for his dovish stance on Israeli-Palestinian issues, was one of those complaining that the prisoner exchange was unfair to Israel. 

"There is tremendous difference in my view between saving someone's life and receiving coffins," he told an Israeli television station. "I pray that we didn't give these people ideas that they can carry out more kidnappings and then ask for whatever they want."

Yet, according to a public opinion poll released just before the deal was signed, more than 60 per cent of Jewish Israelis supported the exchange. That's a stark reversal from a month earlier, when the same poll found 38 per cent were in favour of the deal and 48 per cent opposed it.

Smadar Haran Kaiser, whose husband and two daughters died during a 1979 attack by Lebanese militants, speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv June 29, 2008. ((Ariel Schalit/Associated Press))

Indeed, the issue of prisoner exchange touches a nerve deep within Israeli society, where most young men and many young women serve a compulsory stint in the military. Soldiers go out to battle with the understanding they won't be left behind in the field.

The controversy also weighs the immediacy of the Regev and Goldwasser families' anguish against the pain suffered by a family attacked nearly 30 years ago. Smadar Haran Kaiser, whose husband and two daughters died in the 1979 raid in Nahariya, has in the past opposed Kantar's release in the courts.

Long history of exchanges

Agonizing over a prisoner deal is certainly nothing new for Israel. Several deals have been discussed in recent years, many of them involving Kantar. These have often been strongly opposed because of the nature of his crimes.

In the Nahariya case, Kantar was convicted of killing four-year-old Einat Haran with his rifle butt and shooting her father, Danny Haran, dead during the 1979 attack on the apartment building in which the Harans lived. Smadar Haran Kaiser was hiding in a closet at the time and inadvertently smothered her other daughter, two-year-old Yael, to death while trying to keep her quiet.

Samir Kantar is seen in his cell at Hadarim prison near the town of Tel-Mond, north of Tel Aviv, Israel, in July 2005. ((Reuven Kastro/Associated Press) )

The many attempts to secure Kantar's release include, at least in part, the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in which Palestinian militants were hoping to trade hostages for Kantar's freedom.

That same year, Israel did make a prisoner exchange. About 1,150 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners — "among them some of the most vicious killers, their hands literally dripping with blood," the Haaretz newspaper said in a recent editorial — were released in exchange for three Israeli captives.

In November 1983, Israel had swapped 4,600 Arab prisoners for six Israeli soldiers kidnapped in Lebanon. A swap eight years later saw 51 prisoners freed in exchange for proof that one of its soldiers in Lebanon was, in fact, dead.

Then, in 2004, the most recent exchange saw the militant group Hezbollah exchange an Israeli civilian and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers for 436 Arab prisoners and the bodies of 59 Lebanese fighters.

Is any price too high?

Many within Israeli society say that no price is too high to pay respect to the country's soldiers and soothe the pain of their families.

"Bring them home," read a June 2008 banner headline on the pages of Israel's biggest-selling newspaper, Yediot Ahronot.

"On no occasion in the past has Israel not negotiated with these groups," the left-leaning Haaretz said in an editorial before the cabinet decision. "The question now is to what degree of credibility can Israel lay claim as a party to future negotiations if the government decides not to approve the deal."

The more conservative Jerusalem Post said the deal would, indeed, weaken the government's hand and criticized it because of the heinous nature of Kantar's crimes.

"We also opposed a trade because Kantar has become an important symbol throughout the Arab world," the paper noted in an editorial after the cabinet approval. His release, the paper argued, "will likely complicate the price we will have to pay for the return of Gilad Schalit from the Gaza Strip."

Palestinian militants captured Schalit on a cross-border raid in June 2006, and he is still being held captive by Hamas, the militant group that controls the majority of the seats in the Palestinian Authority's Parliament.

Work continues to secure his release, but Hamas says that will happen only in conjunction with a prisoner swap.

Editor's note: The first paragraph on this story was updated slightly to better reflect the author's intent.