January 29, 2004
Israel releases more than 430 Arab prisoners — more than 400 to the Palestinian Authority, 29 to surrounding Arab nations, and one German citizen who worked with Hezbollah to Germany, from where he travels to Lebanon — in exchange for businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers, all four of whom were abducted in October 2000.
Hezbollah captured the soldiers, Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Suwaeid, while they were on patrol along the Lebanese border. It is not known when they were killed. The abduction of Tannenbaum, a reserve colonel who served five months a year of active duty in the IDF Northern Command, is murkier. He was captured in Dubai after traveling there via Belgium and Germany for what he initially claims were personal and professional reasons and later acknowledges was for a drug deal.
The exchange represents Israel’s determination to bring home its prisoners, dead or alive. But the deal evenly divides Israeli public opinion, in part because it occurs the same day as a bus bombing in Jerusalem. Part of Israeli officials’ defense for the exchange is that it is supposed to include a second phase producing information on the fate of Ron Arad, an Israeli Air Force navigator shot down over Lebanon in 1986. Arad’s fate is not, however, resolved at this time.
By contrast, the Palestinian Authority and Hezbollah in Lebanon celebrate the prisoner release as a victory.