Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israel's freeing of five Hizballah prisoners does not signal a breakthrough in relations, the Lebanese-based Islamist organization said, and hostilities in the combat zone have resumed following a 72-hour cease-fire.
Israel released five detainees - all linked to Hizballah - on Sunday evening, allowing them to be flown to Germany. There they boarded a plane to Beirut, where they were given a heroes welcome on arrival.
It was not immediately clear whether Israel expects something in return, or if it merely intended the release as a goodwill gesture in anticipation of the next round of Israeli-Syrian talks, scheduled to begin next week in Washington.
The five, as well as more than a dozen others, including senior Hizballah figures Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, were thought to be held by Israel in the hope they could be used as bargaining chips to secure the release of captured Israeli Airforce navigator Ron Arad.
Arad was captured in 1986 by members of he Amal terrorist organization, after he bailed out of his damaged plane during a mission over southern Lebanon. Reports about his whereabouts have been sketchy over the years but Israel remains convinced he is still alive and probably in Iranian hands. Hizballah, which is backed by Iran, had possession of Arad at one time.
University of Haifa specialist Professor Kais Firro told CNSNews.com the detainee release is an indication that "talks are going forward," but said Israel could not expect any real change in Hizballah activities until it withdrew its forces from south Lebanon.
"Hizballah will change as soon as Israel withdraws from Lebanon," Firro said.
But other analysts are not so sure. Hizballah has vowed to take up the broader Islamic cause once Israel has left the security zone, and fight Israel all the way to Jerusalem.
On Saturday the organization's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said its goal was "to inflict maximum losses on the Israeli occupying force in southern Lebanon." There would be no let-up in attacks until Israel's redeployment.
"What we need most during the period until the Israeli withdrawal, is continued armed rebellion," Nasrallah said.
The prisoner release followed a 72-hour cease-fire in the security zone, which Israel agreed to in order to allow the Red Cross into the area to remove bodies of slain Hizballah fighters, some of which had been there for months.
But the quiet was short-lived and hostilities resumed within hours of the end of the cease-fire.
Meanwhile, Israel announced on Sunday that it is going ahead with plans to withdraw its troops from the south Lebanon security zone by no later than July 2000. Prime Minister Ehud Barak has pledged to withdraw Israeli forces from the zone unilaterally if necessary.
With the renewal of Israeli-Syrian talks, however, that may not be called for. Talks between Israel and Lebanon are likely to resume after the forthcoming round between Israel and Syria. Syria insists that any peace agreement with Israel must be accompanied by a simultaneous Israel-Lebanon deal.
One security source was quoted as saying the IDF pullback is scheduled to begin in February, and includes a plan to erect a new electronic fence on the border and to strengthen the security of some 20 Israeli border communities.
The withdrawal is estimated to cost more than $238 million. Who will pay for the move remains unknown.
In return for pulling out, Israel is demanding an end to hostilities directed against its towns from south Lebanon and the dismantling of the terrorist infrastructure there.