The Story Behind Hezbollah's Demands Hezbollah wants the release of three prisoners held in Israel in exchange for the captured Israeli soldiers they are holding. Who are those prisoners, and why are they so important to Hezbollah? Cliff Churgin, special correspondent for McClatchy newspapers, joins us.
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The Story Behind Hezbollah's Demands

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The Story Behind Hezbollah's Demands

The Story Behind Hezbollah's Demands

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The second front in the escalating conflict in the Middle East began Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers last week. Hezbollah leaders said they would return the soldiers in exchange for prisoners held in Israeli jails. Though both sides contend the disagreement has spiraled into a much broader dispute, prisoner exchanges have been used in the past to reduce tensions in the region. And indeed, an Israeli cabinet officer said today that, at the end of the day, an exchange of prisoners might be involved in the resolution of this crisis as well.

To tell us more, we turn now to Cliff Churgin, a special correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers who joins us from his home in Jerusalem. Good evening, and welcome to - thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. CLIFF CHURGIN (Special Correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers): Hi. Good evening.

CONAN: First of all, I'd like to focus on the prisoners Hezbollah wants released. How many of them are there? What do we know about them?

Mr. CHURGIN: Well, there are reports of three prisoners being held by Hezbollah, but there's really one key prisoner. His name is Samir Kuntar(ph). He is accused of, or not accused of, but in 1979, he was part of a group of Palestinians that landed in the Israeli coastal town of Nahariya; and in an attack, four people were killed: a policeman, a father, a four-year-old daughter and his two-year-old daughter. His wife survived the attack.

He is considered by the Israelis to be one of the worst terrorists in history. In fact, after the attack in Nahariya, the Israeli government considered reinstating the death penalty for attacks like his. And for Hezbollah, he has become the cause celeb in the most recent prisoner exchange.

In 2004, he was really the sticking point. Hezbollah demanded his release and the Israelis refused to release him. And in the end, Hezbollah gave in and the exchange went ahead without Kuntar.

CONAN: And he and two others have become causes celeb. They too were held back from that last exchange.

Mr. CHURGIN: Right. One of them is actually claimed by Israel to not be in their jail. He was part of a team that, again, took part in an attack and Israel claims that he just doesn't exist. That they don't hold him, and that he must have died in the attack. His family says that they've heard from other prisoners that he is being held in an Israeli jail.

The third is an Israeli citizen of Lebanese origin who is being held for being in contact with Hezbollah.

CONAN: Now these are all the prisoners that Hezbollah is asking for?

Mr. CHURGIN: They haven't made any demands yet. I would be surprised if they only asked for these three. I'm sure their initial demand will be for these three plus many, many Palestinians, possibly foreign citizens, et cetera. But these three seem to be the cause celeb, especially, as I say, Samir Kuntar.

CONAN: And how is he regarded in Lebanon?

Mr. CHURGIN: He is considered a great hero, especially among the Palestinians.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Now this attack you cite back in 1979, that was before the creation of Hezbollah. This would have been a PLO operation.

Mr. CHURGIN: Right. One of the PLO groups that blew - the popular front for the Liberation - no, I'm sorry, I don't remember the exact group. But one of the groups within the PLO did the - conducted the attack.

CONAN: And is Israel ever given - since they balked at releasing him and these two others, one of whom they claim they don't have, years ago, do you think it's likely that they would ever consider releasing him?

Mr. CHURGIN: I do not believe they will. As I say, in the most recent prisoner exchange the Israelis gave a lot of people, but they were not people which, as the Israelis say, have blood on their hands.

Israelis make a distinction in prisoners between those who have blood on their hands, i.e. those who have conducted attacks and those who are simply accused of planning attacks, or being - or trying to conduct attacks, et cetera. So Samir Kuntar is considered, as I say, a terrorist with blood on his hands and I do not believe they would consider releasing him.

CONAN: We're speaking with Cliff Churgin, a special correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, about the prisoners in Israel's hands who are involved in discussions of a potential prisoner swap. And you're listening to special coverage from NPR News.

And let's go now to the other front in Israel, and that of course is against Hamas in Gaza. Hamas seized an Israeli soldier; their demands have been more specific.

Mr. CHURGIN: Right. They demanded the release of women and children, all women and children, for the soldier Gilad Shalit. It was a little unclear if they were demanding the release for Shalit's release or just for information about Shalit. That was not quite clear.

Again, the Israelis, I believe, will not release all women and children. I think there will again be a distinction between those who, quote, have blood on their hands and those who are accused of relatively minor crimes, such as associating with Hamas.

CONAN: And when we speak of children, what are we talking about, teenagers?

Mr. CHURGIN: We're talking mainly about teenagers. Those accused of - and teenagers can be accused of a wide range of things including, say, throwing rocks to actually conducting attacks and killing people.

CONAN: Now, as I understand it, there are an estimated 9,000 Palestinians currently held in Israel. Broadly speaking, who are these people? Are they all Israeli nationals? Are they Palestinian nationals? Are they Lebanese? Who?

Mr. CHURGIN: They are almost exclusively Palestinians. You do have some Israeli nationals, other foreigners, but easily 90 percent, 95 percent, are Palestinians being held for a very wide range of crimes. As Israel defines them, be it - it could be throwing rocks, it could be simply being associated with an organization that Israel has defined as a terrorist organization, it can be simply administrative detention, which means the Israelis feel this person may be likely to commit a crime so they can just detain the person without trial.

CONAN: So these are people held without trial. How many are in that category, do you know?

Mr. CHRUGIN: I don't know.

CONAN: All right. What kind of conditions are they held under?

Mr. CHURGIN: They're held - it's not very pleasant conditions. I think you would be safe to say it's equivalent to an American jail.

CONAN: Is there a regular process, a sequence of trials of these prisoners, as cases come up?

Mr. CHURGIN: It's really a wide variety. I mean, there - first of all there are some that will - that are being held for simple crimes, such as stealing cars.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CHURGIN: And that would be a regular Israeli trial. Most of them would be tried by a military court. They would be in the West Bank or possibly in Gaza, and would be tried by a military court and sentenced in a military procedure. They would have a lawyer. There would be certain legal protections. But, I mean, a little less than in a civil court.

CONAN: But rules of evidence and procedure and that sort of thing.

Mr. CHURGIN: Yes, there would be rules of evidence, though, in the military courts secret evidence is quite common.

CONAN: Now, we have a newly elected government in Israel. Neither the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, or his Defense Minister, Mr. Peretz, have experience in their offices. In the past, neither has been - had the opportunity to make or the challenge of making these kinds of decisions. And thus, we've seen many people say - feel that they needed to show a particularly strong hand when challenged first by Hamas and then by Hezbollah.

On the prisoner exchanges, in the past, as you've pointed out, Israel has made very one-sided prisoner exchanges: a few Israelis or a few bodies of Israelis for hundreds if not thousands of Palestinians.

Mr. CHURGIN: Right. I mean, the prisoner exchange that's probably the most widely criticized took place in 1985. Shimon Peres was Prime Minister and Yitzhak Rabin was actually Defense Minister; and Rabin was actually, you could say, blamed for people who are upset about it, or is blamed for this exchange.

It included the release of many people who were convicted of crimes who, quote, had blood on their hands, including one of those involved in an attack at the international airport where some 20 Puerto Rican pilgrims were killed. And that was considered one of Israel's more embarrassing moments.

The exchange in 2004 was also fairly widely criticized, although the Israelis did not return people who had blood on their hands. Though, one interesting thing about the 2004 exchange was there were some Lebanese that were released who had taken part in attacks on Israeli soldiers. So there is some indication that the Israelis - and this applies to the Palestinian front, not the Israeli front - that the Israelis will make some distinction between those involved in attacks on military personnel exclusively.

CONAN: Cliff Churgin, thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it.

Mr. CHURGIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Cliff Churgin, a special correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, who joined us tonight from his home in Jerusalem.

Stay tuned for continuing coverage of the crisis as events warrant and later today on NPR News. This has been special coverage from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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