"The Supreme Court is finally, after a long time, starting to mark out the red lines that Israel cannot cross, even when fighting terrorism," said Moshe Negbi, a prominent legal commentator. "In this case, what they are saying is, no longer will they be able to kidnap people and keep them hostage."
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who also serves as defense minister, said he respected the court's decision and would act accordingly.
The Lebanese prisoners, some of whom were teenagers at the time they were picked up in 1986, have been held in Ayalon Prison in Ramleh, near the Tel Aviv airport, in the hope that they could be exchanged for information about missing airman Ron Arad.
The air force navigator parachuted safely out of a plane that malfunctioned during a bombing raid over Lebanon in October 1986 but was captured by Amal, a Shiite Muslim militia, and later disappeared.
Because of lobbying by Arad's family, his case has become a cause celebre here. The Israeli government has acknowledged that some of the Lebanese prisoners were being held primarily for the purpose of exacting information about Arad.
"The Supreme Court abandoned and betrayed Ron today," Arad's mother, Batia, told Israeli radio.
The prisoners' case has been cloaked in secrecy, and yesterday's 6-3 ruling came in a closed courtroom. Afterward, the Supreme Court released a terse statement saying that the Israeli Defense Ministry was not authorized "to hold individuals in administrative detention in instances where that individual does not pose a threat to the security of the state of Israel."
The lawsuit was brought by Tel Aviv attorney Zvi Rish on behalf of eight Lebanese prisoners. Prison authorities said they would release by Monday a total of 13 prisoners, all of whom are in a similar situation. However, the two most prominent detainees, Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, will remain in custody for the time being.
The two are being held in military facilities apart from the other detainees, who are in a civilian prison. Both are thought to have intimate knowledge of what happened to Arad.
Obeid, a Shiite spiritual leader, was kidnapped from his home in Jibshit, Lebanon, in July 1989 by Israeli commandos who swooped down by helicopter and killed a neighbor who tried to intervene.
Dirani, formerly head of security for Amal, is thought to have turned Arad over to Iranian revolutionary guards in Lebanon. Dirani was picked up by the Israelis in 1994 and has been held in an undisclosed location. Last month, he brought a lawsuit against the government, alleging that he has been tortured, raped, and sodomized with a broomstick while in captivity.
The others who are to be released appear to have been ordinary Lebanese with only minimal political involvement. Most were snatched in the mid-1980s during the chaotic days of hostage-taking that characterized the Lebanese civil war. It is unlikely that any met Arad.
One captured Lebanese, bank clerk Ghassan Dirani, who is Mustafa Dirani's nephew, suffered from severe schizophrenia while in prison, attempted suicide, and was released on medical grounds by Israel last week. Five others were released in December in exchange for information about Arad.
The court ruling was a victory for Israel human-rights advocates who have taken their government to task for holding the Lebanese as hostages.
"With all respect and sensitivity to Ron Arad's family, it is against all Jewish morals, all international humanitarian morals and laws, to hold people as bargaining chips for something they have no connection with," said Tomer Feffer, a spokesman for B'tselem, a human-rights organization in Jerusalem.
Human-rights advocates have recently scored several victories in the top court. Earlier this year, in a desegregation case compared to the United States' Brown v. Board of Education, the court ruled that an Israeli Arab family could not be prevented from buying a house in an Israeli housing development. Last year, the court banned the use of torture when questioning suspected terrorists.
Yehezkel Lein, a human-rights researcher, said the rulings represented a thawing of attitudes among the Israeli public toward Arabs. ". . . I think they are moving forward in step with gradually changing public opinion," Lein said.