OCCUPIED JERUSALEM – Israel’s cabinet on Sunday gave the green light for a prisoner exchange with Hezbollah, even though two soldiers captured by the Lebanese militia two years ago are known to be dead.
The agreement was approved with 22 votes in favor and three against at a meeting of the Israeli cabinet, government officials said. Only the ministers of finance, justice and housing voted against the proposed deal.
Israel is seeking the return of the remains of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. The two were captured by Hezbollah guerrillas in a deadly cross-border raid on July 12, 2006 that sparked a 34-day war in Lebanon.
At the start of the session, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had urged his cabinet to approve the proposed prisoner exchange, but said the two soldiers were dead.
"Despite all hesitations, after weighing the pros and the cons, I support the agreement," he said. "Our initial theory was that the soldiers were alive … Now we know with certainty there is no chance that that is the case."
Bloodstains and blast damage at the scene of the Hezbollah raid in which Goldwasser and Regev were taken to Lebanon prompted Israeli officials to conclude that one or both of the captives did not survive. Eight other troops died outright.
Hezbollah has given no details on the captives’ condition.
Olmert urged his cabinet to vote in favor of the proposed deal "despite its high price."
"We have no illusions: there will be much sadness in Israel, much humiliation considering the celebrations that will be held on the other side," Olmert said in reference to neighboring Lebanon.
The heads of the Shin Beth internal security agency and of the Mossad intelligence agency had urged ministers to vote against the deal.
Regev and Goldwasser are believed to have been badly wounded during their capture and the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, which is backed by Tehran and Damascus, has never provided any evidence they may be alive.
There was no immediate reaction from Hezbollah to the Israeli cabinet’s decision, but a Lebanese political source in Beirut told Reuters the deal could take place "within a few days".
The proposed deal has drawn criticism in Israel because it is believed to include the release of Lebanese prisoner Samir Kantar, who is currently serving a life sentence for killing two men and a four-year-old girl in a 1979 attack in northern Israel.
Kantar, a member of the Palestine Liberation Front, was sentenced in 1980 to 542 years in prison.
If the swap goes ahead, Israel will reportedly release another four Lebanese prisoners and hand over the remains of Hezbollah fighters buried in the Jewish state.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak earlier came out in favor of the deal.
"As a soldier, as an officer who commanded in combat, as defense minister, I consider we have a supreme responsibility to bring back our sons, dead or alive," he said in a statement before Sunday’s meeting.
On June 1, Israel freed and deported to Lebanon a convicted Hezbollah spy and the Shiite militant group handed over the remains of other Israeli soldiers killed in 2006.
In parallel to the Hezbollah talks, the Olmert government is trying, via Egypt, to recover a soldier held by Hamas in Gaza.
The Lebanon war, which ended under an August 14, 2006 truce, killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon and 157 Israelis.
(Agencies via Alarabiya)