Beirut & Jerusalem - Eight months after the war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon the two foes took their battle to the courtroom on Tuesday as three captured Shiite militants fought for legal protection as prisoners of war.
Israel is seeking to brand the militants captured by its troops in southern Lebanon as "illegal combatants," the same legal classification used by the United States to deny Guantanamo Bay inmates due process in American courts.
The militants' Israeli lawyers, however, say they deserve to be protected by the same international treaties that apply to prisoners of war.
At a preliminary hearing on Tuesday, the defense argued that Hezbollah acted as an agent of the Lebanese government while the prosecution countered that the group did not reflect Lebanese government policy.
As enemy combatants the three captives would face murder charges and the prospects of long stints in Israeli jails. As prisoners of war, they would be sent back to Lebanon as soon as a prisoner exchange can be agreed.
The three men -- Mohammed Abdelhamid Srour, 20, Hussein Suleiman, 23, and Maher Hassan Kurani, 30 -- were captured on August 4 in the villages of Aita al-Shaab and Shihine, two Lebanese border villages on the front lines.
They are being charged with attempted murder for setting an ambush for Israeli soldiers and "membership in a terrorist organization." Suleiman is accused of aiding in the capture of two Israeli soldiers in July, an incident that sparked the month long conflict last year.
"They are prisoners of war because they were combatants who took part in a war between two countries, Israel and Lebanon," defense lawyer Smadar Ben Nathan told AFP
"Lebanon did not send its own troops to the south to protect it against the Israeli army but instead relied on Hezbollah. It thus represented the Lebanese armed forces."
Israel's justice ministry sees things differently. Hezbollah, it says, is an "illegal terrorist militia" which is not in any way a regular army.
"The system has decided they should be tried as people who commit crimes against the state of Israel," justice ministry spokesman Moshe Cohen told AFP.
"They can not enjoy the privileges of prisoners of war because they don't abide by rules of engagement. They shoot from within civilian homes," he said. "You have to pay the price for what you did."
Defense lawyers say they hope that wartime declarations by Israeli and Lebanese leaders will show that Israel entered into a conflict with another country, a war to which international law applies.
"On the day that the two Israeli soldiers were taken -- last July 12 -- Prime Minister Ehud Olmert accused Lebanon of an attack against the state of Israel," the Srour's lawyer said.
Lebanese president Emile Lahoud, meanwhile, "constantly said during the war that Hezbollah belongs to the national resistance and is complementary to the army."
Defense attorneys also argue that the captured Hezbollah militants deserve the same treatment as Israeli soldiers held in Lebanon.
"I don't think that anybody (in Israel) disputes the fact that the two Israeli soldiers are prisoners of war. This is why the government must give (Hezbollah militants) this same status," Ben Nathan said.
Picture: The village of Aita el Shaab on the borders between Lebanon and Israel. This village was totally destroyed by Israel during its 33 day war with Hezbollah.
Sources: Naharnet, Ya Libnan
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