JERUSALEM – Covered in mud and rain, Israeli soldiers unearthed the bodies of Lebanese militants Monday from graves marked only with numbers, bringing Israel and the Hezbollah (search) guerrilla group closer to a long-awaited swap of prisoners and slain fighters.
In the exchange Thursday, Israel will turn over 59 bodies of Lebanese militants and release 436 prisoners. Hezbollah, in turn, will give up a captive Israeli businessman and three soldiers who were captured along the border with Lebanon (search) in 2000 and are believed dead.
Israel is split over the lopsided exchange. Many feel the deal will boost Hezbollah's status in the region and reward the Iranian-backed group's tactic of kidnapping Israelis to secure its fighters' release.
The swap sends the message that "it pays to strike at Israel, whether through kidnappings, terror attacks or war," the daily Haaretz newspaper said in an editorial Monday.
"There is no doubt that this is a difficult decision, but it was a necessary and correct decision," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said.
In preparation for the swap, a team of Orthodox Jewish soldiers wearing skullcaps and green winter coats descended on a cemetery in Israel's north, overlooking the hills of the Galilee region (search), where Lebanese killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers are interred.
Standing beneath a canvas cover against the rain, the soldiers dug into the muddy graves marked with numbered metal posts. Bodies in white sacks were placed in gray blankets and placed in simple wood boxes.
Under the deal, Israel will release 400 Palestinians, none involved in killings, along with 35 prisoners from Arab countries and a German citizen convicted of spying for Hezbollah.
Late Monday, Israel published a list of 31 prisoners slated for release, including Lebanese guerrilla leaders Mustafa Dirani and Abdel Karim Obeid. The rest of the names were to be announced early Tuesday.
The names were published so anyone objecting could appeal to Israel's Supreme Court.
Israel will get businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum, reportedly kidnapped while engaged in shady business deals. Tannenbaum's family said they expected the Israeli security service to question him after his return.
Israel will also receive three of its soldiers abducted by Hezbollah guerrillas near the Lebanese-Israeli border in October 2000. Military rabbis have declared the men dead, though some of their relatives still hold out hope.
The swap, announced late Saturday, came after lengthy German-mediated negotiations.
Following Thursday's exchange, the sides are to open a second round of talks about missing Israeli airman Ron Arad, who was captured after being shot down over Lebanon in 1986.
Shalom said he asked Germany to use its influence with Iran to obtain more information on Arad. "We will never tire of trying to find Ron Arad," he said.
Arad has not been heard from in more than a decade. Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said Arad is in Lebanon.
Israel has said that if it learns Arad's fate, it will release Lebanese militant Samir Kantar, who has been held in an Israeli jail since 1979 for killing three Israelis.
Chen Arad, the navigator's brother, told the Yediot Ahronot daily that if Arad is dead, the family does not want the body returned in exchange for more prisoners.