Israel has signed an agreement to swap prisoners with the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, according to a statement released Monday, as Israeli forces began digging up the bodies of Lebanese fighters to be exchanged in the deal.
The statement said the agreement was signed “in the presence of a U.N. representative.” The Israelis say implementation of the deal depends on carrying out further steps, but it did not say what they are.
Israel approved the swap on June 29. Israel will hand over Samir Kantar, serving multiple life terms for a 1979 attack in Israel's north, as well as four Hezbollah prisoners and dozens of bodies of fighters. In return, Israel is to receive two soldiers captured by Hezbollah in a 2006 cross-border raid that set off a fierce 34-day war.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared the two soldiers dead before his Cabinet approved the deal, but Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who has not allowed Red Cross visits or given any sign that the two are alive, called the declaration “speculation.”
Israeli military officials said the exchange is likely to take place sometime July 13-16. They spoke on condition of anonymity because final arrangements have not been made.
Kantar is serving multiple life sentences for one of the most gruesome attacks in Israeli history. He was convicted of shooting a policeman and then killing an Israeli man in front of his 4-year-old daughter before beating her to death. Kantar denies killing the girl. The Israeli man's wife accidentally smothered their 2-year-old daughter in an effort to keep her from crying out and disclosing their hiding place.
On Monday, the family of the police officer appealed to Israel's Supreme Court to block the exchange.
“Don't release Kantar. He is a despicable mass murderer, and Israel will be sorry in the end,” the slain policeman's daughter, Keren Shahar, told reporters on Monday.
The court is not expected to intervene in the deal.
The military confirmed earlier that the process of exhuming bodies had begun at the Amiad cemetery for enemy combatants, not far from the Israel-Lebanon border. It was declared a closed military zone to prevent reporters from witnessing the process. The military rabbinate called up reservists to help with identifying the bodies before the exchange.
Channel 10 TV showed video of about a dozen workers in white protective suits digging in the cemetery, before a soldier put his hand in front of the camera lens and stopped the filming.
As part of the agreement, mediated by a U.N.-appointed German official, Hezbollah compiled a report on the fate of Ron Arad, an Israeli airman captured alive after his plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986.
Israeli negotiator Ofer Dekel was in Europe Monday to pick up the report, defense officials said.
However, announcing the agreement signing, government spokesman Mark Regev said officials had not yet received the report.
“When that report is received, we will have discussions inside the government on how to move forward,” he said.
Regev would not say where the signing took place.