- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2008

TEL AVIV | A rare exchange of prisoners - living and dead - between Israel and Hezbollah at the Lebanese border boosted hopes yesterday that the two enemies are headed toward a deal that would free two Israeli soldiers whose abduction sparked a war in 2006.

With the Red Cross and U.N. peacekeeping soldiers as go-betweens, Hezbollah returned what it is says are the remains of Israeli soldiers killed in the monthlong war two summers ago.

Israel released Nissim Nasser, who was convicted of spying for the militant Shi’ite group in 2002. The exchange took place at the seaside border crossing of Rosh Hanikrah.

The Ha’aretz newspaper quoted Israeli and Red Cross officials who said the Hezbollah gesture was a surprise and denied there was any agreement on a humanitarian swap. A spokesman from the office of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declined to comment.

The Israeli army released a statement confirming that it had received a coffin from Hezbollah and that it would check the claims that it contained the remains of soldiers.

“I hope this is a step in the direction of a prisoner exchange,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose country is trying to mediate between Israel and Hezbollah.

Mr. Nasser, a Lebanese native born to a Jewish mother, moved to Israel and received citizenship seven years ago. After he finished serving a six-year sentence for espionage, Israel decided to return him to Lebanon rather than keep him in detention as a bargaining chip.

The exchange comes on the heels of reports that Israel and Hezbollah are close to an agreement that would return two soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who have not been heard from since July 2006, in exchange for the freeing of Samir Quntar, who killed an Israeli family and two policeman in northern Israel three decades ago.

“More successful spin by [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nassrallah, in contradiction to Israel’s wishes,” wrote Yossi Melman, a veteran intelligence commentator for Ha’aretz. “What was supposed to be the regular release of a security prisoner, who finished his sentence, now looks like a deal.”

The purported remains of the Israeli bodies were transferred in a coffin and immediately taken to Israel’s national center for forensic medicine to determine whether the Hezbollah claims were genuine.

The Shi’ite group first said several months ago that it possessed the body parts of Israeli soldiers and demanded a prisoner release from Israel - a demand that was ignored by the Jewish state.

A prisoner swap in the near future would help the domestic standing of both Hezbollah and Mr. Olmert.

Just weeks after violent street battles in Beirut gave way to a new unity coalition in Lebanon, a prisoner exchange to secure Kuntar’s release would help Hezbollah recover some of its damaged domestic reputation.

For Israel, it would close one of the wounds left open from what is widely perceived as a failed war.

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