Rules of the game start to change for Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon
Monday, December 27 9:13 PM SGT
JERUSALEM, Dec 27 (AFP) - The start of talks between Israel and Syria appears to have already provoked a shift in relations between the Jewish state and its sworn enemy in south Lebanon, the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.
The change in the rules of the game in Lebanon was marked Sunday by the release of five Hezbollah members who had been held for years by Israel. Despite international pressure, the Jewish state had until now refused to release 21 Lebanese kidnapped for use as bargaining chips in the effort to secure the return of Ron Arad, an Israeli airman taken prisoner in 1986 by Shiites in Lebanon, or at least obtain information on him.
Public radio, citing Israeli military officials stressed that the releases came after the restart of talks between Israel and Syria, which has a dominating influence over Beirut.
After the first round of talks in December, the talks are due to resume on January 3 in the United States.
"This is definitely progress in relations between Israel and Hezbollah," the Maariv newspaper quoted a source close to Barak as saying.
It also quoted a senior security official as saying the release of the five was linked to a temporary ceasefire that enabled Hezbollah to retrieve the remains of fighters killed in clashes with Israeli forces.
"Together they attest to a new leaf that Israel has turned over in its contacts with Hezbollah," the official said.
But Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin said Monday that Israel would refuse to release the two most important detained Lebanese Islamists. They are Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, a Hezbollah official kidnapped in July 1989 by Israeli commandos, and Mustafa Dirani, who was snatched in the same way in 1984.
"The case of these two detainees is different to the 14 other Lebanese," Beilin told Israeli radio.
The announcement of a restart of Israel-Lebanon talks, suspended since 1994, is also expected. Preparations for a withdrawal from the "security zone" of 850 square kilometres (340 square miles) occupied by the Israeli army in south Lebanon have also accelerated.
In February, the army will start the preliminary phase of its redeployment, a senior military source said Sunday, according to Israeli press agency ITIM.
Barak wants to start withdrawing his troops from Lebanon in April, if peace talks with Syria make progress, the daily Yediot Aharonot said Sunday. The prime minister approved the army's plan for withdrawal from Lebanon -- called "New Horizons" -- on Friday.
But for the withdrawal to be a success, Israel must be convinced that Hezbollah will not attack Israeli towns in the Galilee from the evacuated territory to the north.
Hezbollah on its side has shown in recent days its restraint under Syrian influence, military officials told the radio.
Public television commentator Ehud Yaari believes that Hezbollah has started preparing "its metamorphosis, taking account of a possible agreement between Israel and both Syria and Lebanon, from an armed militia into a political party."
This development in relations between Israel and Hezbollah has already translated on the ground into a 72-hour ceasefire last week in south Lebanon to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to gather the remains of five Hezbollah fighters killed by Israel.
Israel's Deputy Defence Minister Ephraim Sneh later connected the ceasefire to the relaunch of Israel-Syria talks. "In theory, the two questions are independent, but in practice there is a relationship between the ceasefire and the atmosphere of a thaw with Syria," Sneh said.
Before that, Hezbollah refrained from launching reprisal attacks after 20 Lebanese pupils were injured on December 16 by a fragmentation shell fired by pro-Israeli forces into a village in south Lebanon.
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