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Israeli Cabinet Approves Hezbollah Prisoner Swap

By Jim Teeple
29 June 2008

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has gotten cabinet approval to go ahead with a prisoner swap with Hezbollah militants. VOA's Jim Teeple has details from our Jerusalem bureau.

Israel's cabinet voted to release Samir Kantar, a Lebanese guerrilla who has been in Israeli jails for nearly 30 years, in exchange for the Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev who were seized by Hezbollah militants in a cross-border raid from Lebanon in July 2006.

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet on Sunday that both Israeli soldiers are dead, but that the prisoner swap should go ahead anyway. Family members of the soldiers say they also believe the two are dead, but they want their bodies back home.

Speaking after the cabinet vote, Immigration Minister Yaakov Edri said the cabinet voted to approve the deal after an appeal by Israel's military chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi.

Edri says Ashkenazi reminded the cabinet of the importance Israel places on getting its soldiers back home whether they are dead or alive.

Both the Israeli soldiers were reported to be alive when they were captured by Hezbollah. The Hezbollah attack led to the second Lebanon War that left more than 100 Israelis and more than 1,000 Lebanese dead before a cease fire went into effect.

The heads of Israel's Mossad and Shin Beit security services opposed the deal releasing Kantar.

Samir Kantar has been serving multiple life terms for a 1979 terrorist attack in which he infiltrated a northern Israeli town and killed a man and his four year-old daughter. A second child in the family died when it was accidentally smothered by its mother who was trying to hide from Kantar. The attack horrified Israel, and Israeli leaders vowed to never free Kantar. Debate over the deal has been heated in recent weeks, but the cabinet vote was overwhelming in favor of the release.

Sunday's vote is not connected to a separate effort by Israel to get Palestinian militants to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who was seized from his border post on the Gaza border two weeks before Hezbollah militants carried out their operation on Israel's northern border. Working with Egyptian mediators, Israel is negotiating a prisoner exchange with Hamas in an effort to get Shalit released.

Israel reopened several cargo crossing points with Gaza on Sunday after closing them last week in retaliation for Palestinian militants firing rockets at southern Israel - despite a truce that went into effect several days earlier. Against expectations by both sides the truce has held. Hamas militants have threatened to use force against smaller Palestinian militant groups who violate the truce.

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