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Israeli-Hizbullah prisoner swap in limbo

Exchange of more than 400 Arab detainees for four Israelis is on hold as the status of a controversial prisoner is debated.

Negotiations between Israel and Lebanon's Hizbullah to swap hundreds of Arab detainees for four Israeli hostages are deadlocked over the fate of a single Lebanese prisoner.

The stalemate threatens to undermine a much-anticipated deal mediated by German intelligence officials to exchange more than 400 Arab detainees for four Israelis held by Hizbullah.

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Hizbullah's leaders have warned that if the negotiations collapse, it will seek to kidnap more Israeli soldiers.

"If this deal doesn't go through, definitely Hizbullah will try to capture more Israeli soldiers, and they might succeed," says a source close to Hizbullah's leadership. "Israel should think about the consequences of not pushing ahead with the swap. They can't protect their soldiers 24 hours a day."

The deadlock centers on Samir Qantar, a Lebanese follower of the Druze religion and a member of the hard-line Palestine Liberation Front, who has been held in an Israeli prison for over 24 years.

Mr. Qantar was captured along with one other comrade, Ahmad Abrass, after killing five Israelis near the coastal town of Nahariyeh in northern Israel in 1979. He was sentenced to 542 years in prison - 99 years for each of the five Israeli victims and an additional 47 years for striking an Israeli officer during his interrogation.

On Sunday, the Israeli cabinet voted narrowly in favor of the prisoner exchange, which would see the release of some 400 Palestinian prisoners, several dozen detainees from Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, Sudan, and Libya, the bodies of Lebanese guerrillas, and maps of Israeli minefields in south Lebanon. In return, Hizbullah would free Elhanan Tennenbaum, an Israeli businessman who was lured to Beirut reportedly on the promise of a drug deal in October 2000, and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers captured by the group the same month.

Many Israelis have voiced strong opposition to the deal, saying that Israel should not negotiate with what it calls terrorist groups, especially as bitter an enemy as Hizbullah. Critics have warned that yielding to Hizbullah's demands will only boost the Lebanese group's status in the region and encourage other militant groups to kidnap Israelis.

Faced with this opposition, Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, has invested political capital in persuading his divided cabinet to approve the principles of a prisoner exchange with Hizbullah.

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But he has refused to release Qantar, saying detainees "with the blood of Israeli civilians" on their hands cannot be freed.

"Hizbullah knows explicitly, and we said throughout the recent negotiations, that Qantar is not on the list," said Silvan Shalom, the Israeli foreign minister. "The prime minister took this decision, which in my view is courageous and important, and has stated it in the clearest possible terms."

But Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hizbullah, has warned that any deal that does not include Qantar is doomed to failure.

"Hizbullah's terms and demands for concluding the deal are clear and well defined and we are sticking to them. We insist on our terms for exchanging prisoners with Israel, including the liberation of Samir Qantar, who has been detained for 24 years," Mr. Nasrallah said on Monday.

Yet unless one side or the other backs down, it is difficult to see how a full prisoner swap can proceed.

"Hizbullah definitely will not make a deal without Qantar," the Hizbullah source says.

Qantar's family has launched a publicity campaign to win his release. A small crowd of Palestinians and Lebanese gathered in central Beirut's Martyrs' Square Monday evening, brandishing photographs of Qantar and chanting "Death to Israel, death to America."

"Today all the Lebanese from the north, the south, and the mountains are beginning a solidarity campaign for Samir and his colleagues," says Bassam Qantar, Samir's brother. "The Israelis must know that without the release of Samir and all the Lebanese detainees, there will be no solution." Bassam Qantar added that he supported the kidnapping of more Israelis if the deal fell through.

In the tit-for-tat nature of the negotiations so far, Israel has responded to Hizbullah's kidnap threats by hinting it might abduct Hizbullah leaders.

Analysts believe that both the Israeli government and Hizbullah have made a tactical blunder by airing public declarations over Qantar's fate.

"Neither side has shown any keen sense of conflict resolution. They have both climbed so high that it's now difficult for either of them to back down," says Timur Goksel, a university lecturer in Beirut and former long-serving senior adviser to the United Nations peacekeeping force in south Lebanon.

Last week, Hizbullah delivered an ominous message to Israel in the form of 10 roadside bombs hidden beneath fiberglass "rocks" and planted alongside the security fence marking the border between Lebanon and Israel. The bombs were discovered and safely defused by Israeli sappers. The Israeli army believes that the bombs were deliberately planted as a foretaste of what Israel can expect if the prisoner exchange negotiations collapse.