JERUSALEM – Israel on Tuesday released the names of more than 430 prisoners it will set free in a swap with Lebanese guerrillas, and it bused an initial group of inmates to a lockup in central Israel in preparation for their departure.
The white bus drove into the Sharon Prison (search) under heavy guard. Prisoners peeked from tiny wire mesh-covered windows, and some tried unsuccessfully to spread their fingers in V-signs through the tightly wrought metal.
In a Tel Aviv court, meanwhile, a Lebanese guerrilla leader who is among those to be released, testified in a $1.3 million suit he has brought against the state. Mustafa Dirani said he was sexually abused, humiliated and tortured by interrogators trying to extract information on a missing Israeli airman.
A prosecutor denied the allegations, saying Dirani volunteered information, so there was no need to mistreat him.
In all, 435 Arab prisoners are to be released in exchange for an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers -- all kidnapped by the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah (search) in October 2000.
Among those are 400 Palestinians who, according to a list released Tuesday by Israel's Prisons Authority, had less than three years to serve and were not involved in wounding or killing Israelis. About two-thirds were to have been released this year anyway.
The list of those to be released was greeted with some disappointment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"I look at this like a routine release," said Issa Karake, head of the Palestinian Prisoners' Association, noting that Israel has in the past freed prisoners convicted of nonviolent offenses on the occasion of Muslim holidays or as part of peace talks.
However, the relatives of prisoners to be freed were rejoicing. In the West Bank city of Hebron, the family of Sharif Mesk, who is getting nine months cut from an 11-year sentence, said he called from prison to say he was coming home very soon. Mesk had been convicted in 1993 of throwing firebombs and pipebombs at Israelis.
Also being freed are 34 prisoners from Arab countries, most of them Lebanese, and a German convicted of spying for Hezbollah. The Israeli Justice Ministry said a Moroccan inmate on the list was released a few days ago.
Red Cross representatives interviewed the group at Sharon Prison, to make sure they were willing to be returned to their home countries.
The most prominent among the prisoners from Arab countries are Dirani and another guerrilla chief, Abdel Karim Obeid. They were kidnapped in 1994 and 1989, respectively, as bargaining chips for Ron Arad, an Israeli airman shot down over Lebanon in 1986. Israel says Dirani held Arad captive at one point.
In his testimony Tuesday, Dirani said Israeli agents kept him naked in an interrogation facility for a month as they questioned him around the clock, demanding the whereabouts of Arad. Dirani's lawyer said the interrogators were from a military intelligence unit.
The interrogators alternately splashed him with hot and freezing water, shook him until he fainted, squeezed his testicles and sodomized him, he said. "I would pray that I'd die," Dirani said.
State attorney Shamai Becker denied Dirani was mistreated. "We spoke with tens of soldiers and all the interrogators who came in contact with you and ... all said you sang like a bird and that there was no reason to touch a hair on your head," he told Dirani.
The German-mediated swap is to take place Thursday. The prisoners from Arab countries and the German will be flown to Germany, while Israel will release the Palestinians into the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel will also hand over 59 bodies of Lebanese militants killed in clashes with Israeli troops.
The Israeli public remained split over the lopsided exchange, with many feeling the deal would boost Hezbollah's status in the region and reward its tactic of kidnapping Israelis to secure release for its fighters.
The swap sends the message "it pays to strike at Israel, whether through kidnappings, terror attacks or war," the daily Haaretz said in an editorial Monday.
A poll in the daily Maariv showed 44 percent of Israelis support the deal and 43 percent oppose it. The poll, of 600 people, quoted a margin of error of four percentage points.
Following Thursday's exchange, the sides are to open a second round of talks to obtain information on Arad.
Israel has said that if it receives detailed information on Arad's fate, it will release Lebanese militant Samir Kantar, who has been held in an Israeli jail since 1979 for killing three Israelis.