July 17, 2008

Hezbollah Celebrates Swap With Israelis 5 Militants Go Home in Exchange for Bodies of 2 Soldiers

By From news reports

Five Lebanese militants freed from prisons in Israel in exchange for the bodies of two captured Israeli soldiers strode down a red carpet behind a Hezbollah honor guard Wednesday during a boisterous welcome from hundreds of cheering spectators.

Israel released Samir Kuntar and four others after Hezbollah handed over two black coffins with the bodies of the Israeli soldiers, closing a painful chapter from the 2006 war in Lebanon.

Kuntar, who had been serving multiple life terms in Israel for one of the most shocking killings in the country's history, wiped away tears as he stood before hundreds in the coastal border town of Naqoura in southern Lebanon. An honor guard escorted the men to a stage as a brass band played martial music and rows of uniformed fighters saluted.

"We knew that you were waiting for the resistance and it reached you," said Ibrahim Amin al-Sayed, head of Hezbollah's political bureau. "You came back free and heroes."

Two Lebanese Army helicopters then flew the men to Beirut, where President Michel Suleiman, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and the Parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, greeted them at the airport.

"Your return is a new victory," Suleiman said.

Winning freedom for Kuntar was one of the reasons Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, cited at the time for going to war with Israel in 2006.

Hezbollah's capture of the two soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, in a cross-border raid triggered the 34-day war. The campaign to bring the two home became a national crusade.

Kuntar was convicted in a nighttime attack that killed a 4-year- old girl, her father and a police officer. Although polls showed Israelis solidly endorsed the exchange, many see Kuntar as the embodiment of evil.

"Samir Kuntar is a brutal murderer of children, and anybody celebrating him as a hero is trampling on basic human decency," said Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli prime minister.

In the dead of night on April 22, 1979, Kuntar and three other men made their way in a rubber dinghy from Lebanon to the sleepy coastal town of Nahariya, Israel, just south of the Lebanese border.

There, in a hail of gunfire and exploding grenades, they killed a police officer who stumbled upon them, then burst into the apartment of Danny Haran, herding him and his 4-year-old daughter outside at gunpoint to the beach below, where they were killed.

An Israeli court found that Kuntar shot Danny Haran in front of his child, then smashed her head with his rifle butt.

Haran's wife, Smadar, who had fled into a crawl space in the family apartment with her 2-year-old daughter, accidentally smothered the child with her hand while trying to stifle her cries.

Kuntar, a Druse who acted on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Front, a small faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, denies killing the older child. He says she was killed in the crossfire as he battled the Israeli police, and he has never expressed remorse. Kuntar was 16 years old at the time.

Two members of his squad were killed in the raid, and the third, taken alive, was released in a prisoner swap in 1985.

Israel held on to Kuntar for decades, hoping to use him as a bargaining chip to win new information about an Israeli airman whose plane crashed in Lebanon in 1986.

Hezbollah provided a report on the airman over the weekend.

Despite dissatisfaction with the report and under pressure from the families of the two captured Israeli soldiers, the cabinet voted Tuesday to release Kuntar.

On Tuesday, Hezbollah's commander in south Lebanon, Nabil Qawuq, called the swap an "official admission of defeat" for Israel.

In some respects, the prisoner exchange closed the chapter of that summer's war. But far from ameliorating the simmering hostility between the two sides, the deal has further hardened the feelings of many Israelis who charged the Lebanese organization with toying with the emotions of the anguished families of the missing soldiers to the very end.

The soldiers' captors had withheld any information about them since they were taken, refusing to release pictures or allow the Red Cross to see them. It was not clear if Regev and Goldwasser were killed in the original raid or if they died in captivity. Evidence at the scene indicated both were seriously wounded.

Though officials had suspected they were dead, the sight of the coffins was the first confirmation of their fate.

Regev's father, Zvi, said he fell apart the moment he saw Hezbollah take the coffins out of a van and place them on the ground.

"It was horrible to see it," he said, choking back tears. "I didn't want to, I asked them to turn off the TV."

"We were always hoping that Udi and Eldad were alive and that they would come home and we would hug them," he added, using Ehud Goldwasser's nickname. "We had this hope all the time."

About 50 friends, neighbors and family who had gathered outside the soldier's father's house sobbed, rocked back and forth in prayer, lit candles or tugged at their hair. "Nasrallah, you will pay," several mourners vowed.

The deal with Hezbollah, while not the first, has stirred an especially painful debate in Israel with some feeling the price was too high, particularly given the drawn out uncertainty about the missing soldiers' condition.

But the Israeli military has always upheld the principle of bringing its soldiers home as a moral imperative.

On Wednesday, most criticism was laid aside as the country came together in sadness and sympathy for the soldiers' relatives, who had spearheaded the campaign for their return.

"At this time, we are unified as one big family," said Major Avital Leibovich, an army spokeswoman. "We have been successful in bringing our sons home but it is very emotional and painful."

Local television and radio devoted the whole day to continuous broadcasts of the exchange and played solemn music.

The swap was mediated by a UN-appointed German official who shuttled between the sides for 18 months.

On Wednesday, Israeli forensic experts examined the remains for several hours, checking dental records among other things, before confirming the soldiers' identities. Israeli generals then went to the families' homes to deliver the news.

After the confirmation, Israel released Kuntar and the four other Lebanese prisoners to Hezbollah.

In addition to the two soldiers, Hezbollah also handed to Red Cross officials body parts belonging to Israeli soldiers killed during the 2006 war.

Also Wednesday, a Red Cross tractor-trailer arrived in Lebanon carrying wooden coffins containing the bodies of Lebanese and Palestinian fighters. Part of the swap included Israel handing over the remains of some 199 fighters.

Originally published by AP, IHT, Reuters.

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