A prisoner swap with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has been approved by Israel’s cabinet (photo).
Two Israeli bodies of two Israeli soldiers, captured by Hezbollah two years ago, would return to their country.
The Lebanese prisoners to be freed reportedly include Samir Qantar, in jail for murder since 1979.
Earlier, Ehud Olmert, Israeli prime minister, said that the two soldiers, whose capture triggered Israel’s offensive attack against Hezbollah in mid-2006, were dead.
By 22 votes out of 25 present at the meeting, the cabinet approved the German-brokered exchange, Israeli radio reported.
Even if he said that the two soldiers were probably dead, before the vote Ehud Olmert had urged the cabinet to approve the swap.
“We know what happened to them”, Mr Olmert was quoted telling his cabinet by the Associated Press.
He said they had probably been killed during the raid or shortly after. Evidence from the scene of their capture indicated that at least one of them was badly wounded.
“There is no doubt that today’s discussion has special weight and is exceptionally sensitive in terms of its national and moral implications”, Mr Olmert said before cabinet convened.
It is the first time the Israeli government has confirmed that the two soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, are no longer alive, observers say.
Swapping prisoners for the bodies of dead Israeli troops has been opposed by critics.
It is reported that five Lebanese detainees are to be set free, plus the bodies of about 10 militants handed over, in exchange for the two soldiers.
Samir Quantar, in jail since 1979 for his part in a deadly guerrilla raid, is said to be one of the detainees in the exchange.
In Israel, because of his role in the deaths of three members of one family, his release would be controversial, says the BBC’s Wyre Davies in Jerusalem.
No public indication has been given by Hezbollah that the two soldiers are still alive.
Many in Israel assume they are dead, and the Red Cross has never been allowed to see them.
After the soldiers were seized, Israel and Hezbollah fought a 34-day war in a cross-border raid into Israel in July 2006.
Since the war ended, Germany has been trying to broker a prisoner exchange.
The remains of five Israeli soldiers, killed in the war, have been handed over on 1 June. They were delivered after Israel released a Lebanese-born man who had served six years in prison, for spying for Hezbollah.
Gilad Shalit, another Israeli soldier, is still a prisoner of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas. Hamas has said that as part of a prisoner exchange, it would consider releasing him.