- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2004

Last Thursday — Jan. 29, 2004 — will likely be remembered as one of the darkest days in Israel’s history. The bombing of a Jerusalem bus by Palestinian terrorists, whichkilled11peopleand wounded dozens more, was terrible enough. But in the long run, the release of 400 Palestinian prisoners and more than 30 from Lebanon and other countries that same day in a deal with the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah is likely to have even more dire consequences for Israeli security.

Those going free included “failed suicide bombers, spies, terrorists who missed their targets and those who tossed Molotov cocktails,” the Jerusalem Post reported. Others included two foreigners who planned to carry out suicide bombings on Hezbollah’s behalf. In exchange for releasing the prisoners, ranging from petty criminals to seasoned Hezbollah operatives like Abdul Karim ObeidandMustafaDirani, Hezbollah released an Israeli businessman, along with the bodies of three soldiers it abducted from northern Israel and killed.

For the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Israeli people, the upside of such a deal is not difficult to see at all. In a nation that has been at war for all 55-plus years of its existence, the willingness to do everything possible to ensure the return of all of its citizens, dead or alive, who fall into enemy hands is essential to ensuring battlefield morale and national cohesion. But it would be irresponsible not to ask questions about whether a given deal is in Israel’s national interest. And there are some very good reasons why Israelis should question this particular one.

For one thing, the history of prisoner exchanges and similar arrangements between Israel and its adversaries is hardly encouraging. In May 1985, for example, Israel released 1,150 Arab prisoners in exchange for threesoldierscapturedin Lebanon in 1982. Many of those released returned to the West Bank or Gaza and played a key role in the violence of the first intifada in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Later, Israel agreed to permit scores of Hamas operatives (who had been deported after the group kidnapped and murdered an Israeli policeman) to go back to the West Bank and Gaza. Upon their return from Lebanon, where they had apparently been trained in terrorism tactics by Hezbollah, group members rejoined the fight against Israel — after the signing of the Oslo I peace agreement with Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Indeed, even Mr. Sharon’s government does not deny that this is likely to happen once again. “We’re releasing the 400 Palestinians with very heavy hearts, because we know that those Palestinians will very quickly return to the cycle of terrorism,” admitted Jonathan Peled, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

A release of some Palestinian or Hezbollah terrorists might make some sense if it were part of an enforceable agreement in which the Palestinian Authority (PA) or the Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese governments agreed to stop supporting terrorist operations against Israel. Indeed, without their support, Hezbollah and the Palestinian terrorist groups that have claimed more than 900 Israeli lives since Sept. 29, 2000, would not be able to continue their activities.

But last Thursday’s Israel-Hezbollah deal is nothing of the kind. In fact, Hezbollah, which has taken an increasingly active role in training secular Palestinian terrorist groups affiliated with Mr. Arafat’s Fatah organization, is threatening to carry out more kidnappings of Israelis. So, too, is Hamas, one of two groups boasting that it carried out last Thursday’s bus bombing in Jerusalem. The Arafat-controlled Palestinian newspaper Al-Hayat al-Jadidah declared that Hezbollah’s success in getting prisoners released demonstrated that violence, rather than negotiations, was the way to deal with Israel.

And, when it comes to letting terrorists out of jail, Israel will likely be doing more in the near future. For over a decade, it was widely believed that Obeid and Dirani would never go free until Hezbollah and its chief patron, Iran, provided information about the fate of Ron Arad, an Israeli Air Force pilot whose plane malfunctioned and crash-landed over the skies of Lebanon in 1986. (Dirani is believed to have tortured Mr. Arad while he was initially in custody, and to have turned him over to Iran.) But Obeid and Dirani arrived in Beirut to heroes’ welcomes last week, while Mr. Arad’s fate is still unknown.

To get information on Mr. Arad, Israel is likely to release a number of other prisoners in the coming months, including Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese terrorist. On April 22, 1979, Kuntar and three associates landed in a boat in the coastal town of Nahariya and broke into a nearby apartment. Kuntar’s gang killed an Israeli policeman and a fatherandhis4-year-old daughter in cold blood; the girl’s 2-year-old sister, hiding in a cramped closet with her mother, was suffocated to death.

If Ron Arad comes home alive, it will be a day of great national celebration for Israelis. But to ensure his safe return, Israel will almost certainly have to release Kuntar, and perhaps other hardened terrorists like him. And sadly, the very act of freeing such people from jail will increase the likelihood that there will be more Israeli victims of terror in the future.

Joel Himelfarb is the assistant editor of the editorial page of The Washington Times.

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