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Israel Mourns, Hezbollah Exults

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By Griff Witte and Alia Ibrahim
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 17, 2008

KIRYAT MOTZKIN, Israel, July 16 -- With the transfer of prisoners and fighters' remains across the Israel-Lebanon border Wednesday, the Shiite militia Hezbollah achieved a victory it had long coveted and Israel received the long-feared confirmation that two of its soldiers were dead.

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The swap between enemies began with two black coffins passing into Israel at a seaside border crossing. Subsequent confirmation of the identities of soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev ended hopes that either of the two Israelis, whose capture by Hezbollah in July 2006 sparked a month-long war, had survived their ordeal.

Hours later, the man Hezbollah had sought to free when it seized the Israelis -- convicted murderer Samir Kuntar -- returned to Lebanon to a jubilant hero's welcome.

The divergent reactions reflected the basic nature of the deal as a trade of the living for the dead. For Israel, the exchange represented a collision of ideals: the obligation to never leave a soldier behind on the battlefield and the determination to resist concessions earned through violence.

"We think of bringing our children home," said Moshe Sasson, 62, who was injured in Kuntar's attack 29 years ago and is now a neighbor of the Goldwassers. "But they think of other targets."

For Hezbollah, the swap was treated as vindication of the group's strategy of taking hostages to bargain for Kuntar's freedom, though the tactic also prompted a war that left more than 1,000 Lebanese and 159 Israelis dead.

"The most important element that brought us to where we are today is our steadfastness and our victory against Israel," Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah told thousands of the group's supporters gathered at an arena in southern Beirut.

Kuntar also spoke to the crowds, saying that he had returned "to Lebanon only because I want to go back to Palestine with my brothers in the resistance."

The ambivalence in Israel about the swap was displayed on television, radio and the streets, where arguments raged throughout the day over the merits of the U.N.-mediated deal. At the emotional center of the debate were the families.

Both Goldwasser's and Regev's relatives had waged a public campaign to bring them home. With opinion polls showing most of the public on the families' side, the cabinet of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ultimately agreed. Relatives of Kuntar's victims, meanwhile, fought against any deal that involved letting him go free.

Although Israeli officials had said weeks ago that the captured soldiers were almost certainly dead -- as had been suspected since the first days of the war -- televised images of the coffins crossing the border were still greeted by wails of grief here in Regev's home town.

"We were always hoping that Udi and Eldad were alive and that they would come home and we would hug them," said Regev's father, Zvi. "We had this hope all the time."

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