July 17, 2008

Grim Chapter Comes to Close: Coffins in Israel, Cheers in Beirut

JERUSALEM -- An exchange of bodies and prisoners between Israel and Hezbollah on Wednesday put on stark display the Middle East's bitter divisions: a mournful welcome for two fallen soldiers returned to Israel in coffins, and jubilant homecoming celebrations for five militants returned smiling to Lebanon.

The swap underscored the continuing hostility between the enemies two years after they fought a monthlong war triggered by Hezbollah's cross-border capture of the soldiers. It also boosted the guerrilla group's standing in Lebanon, where the president and prime minister joined other dignitaries at Beirut airport to greet the released prisoners.

Exchange renews debate While it provided the soldiers' families and Israelis in general with a heart-rending sense of closure, the exchange rekindled debate over the wisdom of having gone to war in 2006 and whether the price paid Wednesday could inspire more kidnappings and possibly complicate efforts to free another soldier held in Gaza by the Palestinian group Hamas.

Hezbollah trumpeted the seemingly disproportionate exchange as a victory over the Israelis, while Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert condemned the hero's welcome in Lebanon for freed prisoner Samir Kantar, convicted of killing a father and his 4-year-old daughter in a 1979 attack remembered in Israel as one of the most brutal in the country's history.

The swap closed a painful chapter for the Israelis, who recovered the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, reserve soldiers seized in the ambush by Hezbollah in 2006 that set off the war in which 1,200 Lebanese and 159 Israelis were killed.

The Israelis handed over Kantar and four Hezbollah fighters captured in the war, as well as the remains of nearly 200 Lebanese, Palestinians and other Arabs killed over the years in clashes with Israeli forces.

As the Israelis prepared for the funerals Thursday of the two soldiers, tens of thousands of Hezbollah supporters gathered at a rally in Beirut to welcome Kantar, who had served 29 years of multiple life sentences, and the other freed prisoners.

The crowd roared as Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, declared: "The time of defeats has passed, and the time for victories has come. This people, this homeland and this country showed a true picture to the world today, to friend and foe: It cannot be defeated."

Kantar, who wore a Hezbollah uniform and embraced and repeatedly kissed Nasrallah, vowed to "return to Palestine."

"God willing," he said, "we shall return, me and my fellow fighters in the heroic Islamic resistance."

The rally capped a day in which events unfolded in starkly contrasting scenes on both sides of the Israeli-Lebanese frontier.

As the UN-brokered exchange got under way on the Lebanese side, Hezbollah official Wafik Safa announced the group was handing over the Israeli soldiers, "whose fate has been unknown until this moment, despite the war waged against us to recover them."

"Now their fate will be revealed," Safa said, and two black coffins were carried from a vehicle and placed on the ground.

The grim scene, televised live, reverberated across Israel, where many had clung to hope that despite government assessments that the soldiers had died in the ambush or shortly thereafter, they might have survived.

"It was awful and terrible to see," Zvi Regev, the father of one of the soldiers, told Israel Radio. "I asked that the television be turned off. I couldn't watch anymore."

Shlomo Goldwasser, father of the other soldier, said: "It was not easy to see, though it didn't come as much of a surprise. But confronting reality is always difficult."

Outside the Regev home, neighbors burst into tears and lit memorial candles whose number grew throughout the day as visitors paid their respects.

Celebration in Lebanon As a convoy of army vehicles carried the soldiers' flag-draped coffins to an army base for a private viewing by their families, a red carpet was rolled out a few miles away, in the southern Lebanese village of Naqoura, at a welcome ceremony for Kantar and his fellow prisoners, who arrived in Red Cross vehicles.

A drum corps welcomed the freed men, and signs above a makeshift stage said: "Israel is shedding tears of pain. Lebanon is shedding tears of joy."

Kantar, who is Lebanese, was in a group of gunmen from the Palestine Liberation Front that landed from the sea at the coastal town of Nahariya, killed a police officer and burst into the apartment of the Haran family.

The attackers led Danny Haran and his 4-year-old daughter to the beach, where, according to witnesses, Kantar shot the father in front of his daughter and smashed her head against a rock with his rifle butt.

Haran's wife, Smadar, who was hiding with a 2-year-old daughter in a crawl space, accidentally suffocated the child with her hand in an effort to keep her from crying out.

The decision to go through with the exchange was guided by an Israeli sense of "mutual responsibility, the concern for the fate of every one of our soldiers," Olmert said.

Israel has carried out lopsided trades in the past with militant groups to retrieve captured soldiers, both dead and alive.

In 1985 Israel released more than 1,000 prisoners in return for three soldiers captured in Lebanon.

Israeli critics of Wednesday's deal warned that it could up the ante in negotiations with the militant group Hamas, which has been holding Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for more than two years.

Tzahi Hanegbi, a member of Olmert's Kadima party and chairman of the Israeli parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee, said that in retrospect, the swap with Hezbollah had undermined the war's rationale.

"In the end we gave what we could have given on the morning of July 13," Hanegbi said.

"Ultimately we are surrendering."