GAZA CITY, Gaza — The leader of Hamas said Friday that his group is making every effort to seize Israeli soldiers as bargaining chips for the release of Palestinians in Israeli jails.
The declaration by Sheik Ahmed Yassin came a day after a prisoner swap between Israel and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah. Israel released more than 400 prisoners, the vast majority Palestinians, in exchange for an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers.
The swap boosted the standing of Hezbollah in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and appeared to put Hamas on the defensive.
Yassin appeared to be trying to explain why Hamas — unlike Hezbollah — has not brought about prisoner releases in recent years.
"The (Palestinian) factions will spare no effort to kidnap Israeli soldiers and they tried many times, but the Israeli soldier today is cautious as a bird about its chick," Yassin told reporters.
Yassin said he believes Israel will only free Palestinian prisoners under pressure.
"There is no solution to the prisoner issue except with the kidnapping of soldiers of the enemy and exchanging them with our own prisoners," he said.
Yassin said Hamas' military wing "planned and still plans and will plan" kidnappings.
Yassin served several years in Israeli prisons for ordering the abductions of Israeli soldiers. He was released by Israel in 1997, in exchange for two Israeli agents involved in a failed attempt to kill a Hamas operative in Jordan.
Hezbollah prisoners welcomed home
A day earlier, tens of thousands of Hezbollah supporters lined an airport road in Beirut to welcome home the former prisoners, including Shiite cleric Abdel Karim Obeid and Lebanese guerrilla leader Mustafa Dirani.
Obeid was the first to disembark the plane. Sporting a long beard and white Shiite Muslim turban, he walked steadily toward a group of government officials. Dirani followed him.
Minutes earlier, an Israeli jet landed in Tel Aviv bringing home businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers killed on the Israeli-Lebanese border.
The complex swap — carried out in two stages in Germany and in the Palestinian territories — went ahead despite a suicide bombing earlier Thursday on a bus in Jerusalem that killed 10 bystanders.
In the first stage, Israel released more than 400 Palestinian prisoners to jubilant relatives waiting for them in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The welcoming crowd cheered and praised Hezbollah, Israeli’s arch enemy and listed by the United States as a terror group.
In the second stage, Israel brought 28 Arabs and a German national and Hezbollah brought the businessman and soldiers’ coffins to an airport in Cologne, Germany. After the swap, planes bound for Tel Aviv and Beirut took off at almost the same time.
Israel also turned over the remains of 60 Lebanese militants as part of the deal. An Israeli military truck took the bodies to Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Israeli soldiers carried the coffins one by one and placed the wooden boxes into a Red Cross truck, which rumbled off through a border crossing.
Hezbollah: Kidnapping may continue
At a mass rally Hezbollah staged to welcome home the freed prisoners, the group’s leader warned it would kidnap more Israelis to use as bargaining chips if necessary to secure the release of Lebanese prisoners.
Earlier, the vast crowd of supporters waved Lebanese, Palestinian and Hezbollah flags, loudspeakers blared national and Hezbollah songs and a brass band played.
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, Cabinet ministers and Hezbollah guerrilla leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah were on hand at Beirut International Airport for the red carpet return.
The soldiers’ bodies were part of the major exchange of prisoners and remains of fighters that was effected between Israel and Hezbollah on Thursday through German mediation.
Shortly before Nasrallah spoke, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned Hezbollah against kidnapping.
Speaking at a memorial service for the three dead soldiers in Israel, Sharon said: “Israel will not allow any enemy or terror group to turn kidnapping and ransom into a system. There are means we have not yet used. If, heaven forbid, the circumstances are changed, we will not hesitate to use them.”
He did not elaborate on the means.
The same month that the soldiers were captured, Hezbollah managed to kidnap Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum as he visited an Arab state. As Tannenbaum was the only Israeli known to be alive in Hezbollah’s custody, he became a major chip in the protracted negotiations for Thursday’s exchange. He returned to Israel on the same plane as the soldiers’ coffins.
Nasrallah told the rally it was “foolish” for the Israeli government not to have released Samir Kantar, the Lebanese citizen who has been held the longest in Israel. “Because they didn’t do that, I assure you that they will regret it in the future.”
Israel was to receive the bodies of the soldiers in a state memorial ceremony at the military section of the airport, but Tannenbaum, a colonel in the military reserves, faced interrogation by police and security services after allegations that he was involved in shady business dealings that led to his capture in October 2000.
The soldiers were also captured in October 2000 after Hezbollah guerrillas set off a bomb next to their jeep on the Israel-Lebanon border. Examinations of the bodies determined that they died shortly after the attack.
The soldiers, Beni Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Souad, were captured in October 2000 after a Hezbollah roadside bomb hit their jeep during a patrol along the Lebanese border.
The Lebanese guerrilla leaders, Obeid and Dirani, were kidnapped by Israel in 1989 and 1994, respectively, as bargaining chips for the release of Ron Arad, an Israeli airman shot down over Lebanon in 1986.
Israel says that Dirani held Arad in the first months after his capture, at one point transported the airman in the trunk of his car and eventually handed him over to Iranian-backed Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon.
With the completed swap, the sides are to launch a second stage of negotiations, with Israel to receive concrete information on Arad within three months. In exchange, Israel would release Samir Kantar, a Lebanese militant who has been in an Israeli prison since 1979 for killing three Israelis.
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