Declare Hizbullah prisoners POWs

Israel doesn't have much to lose. Arguably, it has something to gain.

Hizbullah fighters 224.8 (photo credit: AP [file])
Hizbullah fighters 224.8
(photo credit: AP [file])
An unusual trio appeared this week before the Nazareth District Court. Hussein Suleiman, Maher Kurani and Muhammad Srur, three Hizbullah combatants captured by the IDF during the Second Lebanon War, appealed to the judges, requesting that they be recognized as prisoners of war rather than being tried in accordance with Israeli criminal law. Suleiman, 22, is accused of direct involvement in that attack, in which reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were captured and eight soldiers were killed. The court repeatedly has denied their request. In the latest session, held last Tuesday, Judge Binyamin Arbel justified his decision by stating that Hizbullah was an illegal terrorist organization "serving as the long arm of the Iranian government." Therefore, claimed the judge, criteria set down by the third Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of war captives were not applicable to the Hizbullah men. Even the most magnanimous cannot help but notice the outrageous cynicism in the argument of the three. Seated in Nazareth, a city which their organization bombarded with Katyusha rockets that killed two children, these men still seek the prestige that comes with the title of POW, as well as the privileges denied by Israel's criminal system. The insolence of the prisoners, who, according to an article recently published in Ma'ariv, daily voiced frustration to visiting MK Taleb A-Sana at having their mail delivered late and being isolated in prison, is truly infuriating. However, despite all this, Israel should consider their request for POW status. IN DOING so, Israel doesn't have much to lose. The three Hizbullah prisoners already enjoy most of the benefits granted to POWs. They are not deprived of basic needs such as food or sleep, and they enjoy good health. They are allowed to maintain contact with the outside world through mail and are seen by Israeli and foreign visitors. They even get media coverage that allows them to freely express their views regarding the Winograd Report or the assassination of Hizbullah's Imad Mughniyeh. During their latest appearance in an Israeli courtroom they took advantage of reporters' presence to lash out at PM Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, whom they dubbed "blood-shedder" and "terrorist," respectively. If this is the extent of limitation applied to them now, how much worse can it get? Secondly, the argument of Itai Hermelin, attorney of defendant Muhammd Srur, should be taken seriously. In a brief submitted to the court on behalf of his client, Hermelin said: "The portrayal of Hizbullah combatants as criminals rather than fighters also puts to shame the IDF soldiers against whom they fought." There is truth to what he says. If the State of Israel takes seriously its own branding of the round of violence which took place in the summer of 2006 as a full-fledged war, it is ridiculous to consider the IDF soldiers combatants while legally characterizing Hizbullah as merely a gang of criminals. Obviously the enemy captives taken by the IDF during the war were engaged in military combat, not in criminal activity or some other type of hate crime. The IDF soldiers who took part in the battles of Lebanon, not to mention those who gave their lives in them, deserve an official acknowledgement by the state of the trained military forces they were up against. HOWEVER, the most important argument in favor of declaring the trio POWs is directly linked to the fate of our soldiers Regev and Goldwasser. If Israel fails to recognize Hizbullah as a military organization subject to the international conventions that regulate the proper treatment of POWs, how then can it turn to Hizbullah, and to the world, demanding information on its soldiers? Israel is effectively validating Hizbullah's age-old claim that the war between the two sides was disproportionate and unbalanced. The Israeli government is not only allowed, it is obligated to use the Geneva Convention as an international and objective source of legitimacy in its plea to obtain information on the fate of Regev and Goldwasser - and possibly visitation rights. Only by creating symmetry between the legal status of Hizbullah combatants and IDF soldiers can we internationally justify our moral demand to receive this invaluable information. Only thus can we bring a measure of solace to the suffering families waiting at home. The writer is Legacy Heritage Fellow working in the Knesset office of MK Colette Avital.