Information brief: History of Israeli-Arab prisoner exchanges

Syrian TV images of the aftermath of the Israeli bombing of one of the highway bridges connecting the north and south of Lebanon. Around the Arab world, people were glued to their television sets in horror at Israel’s decimation of the civilian infrastructure. (EI)


Overview

Arrangements for prisoner exchanges between Arab governments and Israel date back to 1948. During the early 1980s, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel exchanged prisoners, the most famous of which is known as the “Jibril Deal” in May 1985. Through third-party negotiations, Israel and Hizballah carried out three prisoner exchanges starting in 1996. Attempts to secure the release of Palestinian political prisoners through negotiations often failed because Israel regularly suspended talks over prisoners or renegotiated established criteria for their release. When negotiations resulted in an agreement, Israel ignored deadlines for the releases, released nonpolitical prisoners and claimed it had fulfilled its obligations, or simply dismissed agreements.

Israeli-Hizballah Prisoner Exchanges

To date, there have been three prisoner exchange deals between Israel and Hizballah, the details of which follow.

In July 1996, Hizballah released the remains of two Israeli soldiers, Joseph Fink and Rahamim Alsheich, in exchange for the remains of 123 Lebanese soldiers. On the same day, Hizballah released 25 members of the South Lebanon Army (SLA), an army loyal to Israel. In exchange the SLA released 25 Lebanese prisoners from the Khima Prison in south Lebanon.

In June 1998, Hizballah returned the remains of Sergeant First Class Itamar Ilya in exchange for the remains of 40 Hizballah soldiers, among them the body of Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s son who was killed in 1997. The deal also included the release of Lebanese prisoners. The bodies of the Hizballah soldiers were transported by a French aircraft.

In January 2004, in the largest prisoner exchange, Israel released a total of 436 prisoners including 400 Palestinians; 23 Lebanese; two Syrians; three Moroccans; three Sudanese; a Libyan; and a German Muslim. Israel also returned the remains of 59 Lebanese soldiers. Israel received the remains of three Israel soldiers and the release of Elhanan Tennenbaum who Hizballah claimed was an Israeli intelligence officer. Sheikh Abdel Kareem Obaid, who Israel kidnapped from Lebanese territory in 1989, and Sheikh Mustafa Dirani, kidnapped in 1994, were among those released by Israel in exchange for its three soldiers and intelligence officer.

Israeli-PLO Prisoner Exchanges

In 1983, six Israeli soldiers, held prisoner for more than 14 months by the PLO were exchanged for 4,500 Palestinian prisoners. As a result the Ansar prison camp in southern Lebanon was closed. The most famous prisoner swap between Israel and the PLO was in May 1985. In exchange for three Israeli soldiers held by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC), Israel released 1,150 Palestinian political prisoners. The exchange was called the “Jibril Deal” after the leader of the PFLP-GC, Ahmad Jibril.

Syrian TV images of the Israeli bombing of Beirut International Airport. Around the Arab world, people were glued to their television sets in horror at Israel’s decimation of the civilian infrastructure. (EI)


Jordanian and U.S. Intervention

In an assassination attempt on Hamas’ Damascus-based Khaled Mashaal in September 1997, the Israeli Mossad, under orders from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu injected Mashaal who was living in Jordan at the time with a toxic substance. Two Mossad agents were arrested and the Israeli covert action was revealed. Jordan’s King Hussein demanded the antidote and Israel, after pressure from U.S. President Bill Clinton, provided the antidote. In exchange for the two Mossad agents, Israel released Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas who was serving a life sentence in Israel. Israel assassinated Yassin in the Gaza Strip in 2004.

Israel and Hamas

About twelve years before Hamas’ 25 June 2006 capture of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit in Gaza, Israeli soldier Nachshon Wachsman was taken prisoner in October 1994. Like today, Israel said it would not negotiate a release with Hamas. Then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin decided on a military option to free the Israeli soldier. The Israeli commando raid on a house in Bir Nabala near Jerusalem not only left the Hamas captors dead but with them Wachsman.

Hamas has demanded the release of all female and minor Palestinian prisoners held by Israel in exchange for Shalit.

Palestinian Political Prisoners

According to the Ramallah-based Mandela Institute for Human Rights, there are 9,600 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails and detention centers, among them 130 Palestinian women. Defense for Children International puts the number of Palestinian children in Israeli custody at 388.

According to a recent poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center (JMCC), 69 percent of Palestinians insist on an exchange for Shalit’s release. The high support for a prisoner exchange stems from the sensitivity of the prisoner issue within Palestinian society. The vast majority of Palestinians have been directly or indirectly affected by Israel’s policy of arbitrary or blanket arrests and hold deep resentment for political violations of their leaders’ authority and autonomy.

Israel’s imprisonment and detention of Palestinians is an example of its failure to abide by international law and the Fourth Geneva Convention. Administrative detentions, imprisonment without due process and imprisonment inside Israel are both illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Furthermore, Palestinian prisoners are routinely tortured by Israel and held in detention centers and prisons that do not meet the minimum international standards and are routinely denied visitation rights by their legal representation and family members. The vast majority of Palestinian prisoners are held without trial. According to Amnesty International, the trials that do take place often fall short of international fair trial standards.

Israel’s failure to release Palestinian political prisoners and its continued arbitrary arrest of Palestinian civilians serves only to highlight Israel’s belief that it is above the law and that the Palestinians are beneath it.

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    Samar Assad is the Executive Director of The Palestine Center. The above text does not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.