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.
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."
Even here, however, the deal had its critics. Shalom Millo, owner of a hardware store beneath the Regev home, said Olmert had blundered by giving up Kuntar in exchange for two dead men.
"If they didn't have a sign of life, Olmert shouldn't have done the swap," Millo said, angrily pounding his fist on the counter. "You don't trade bodies for live prisoners."
A short drive away, relatives of Danny Haran said they felt betrayed by their government. Haran was killed along with his 4-year-old daughter during Kuntar's 1979 raid. Another daughter, who was 2, died when her mother accidentally suffocated her while trying to keep her quiet. A policeman was also killed in the attack by Kuntar, who was 16 at the time, and who has said he was trying to take hostages to win the release of Palestinian prisoners.
"I feel that this is a victory for terror," said Ron Keren, a brother of Haran. "We all know that this story is not over, and we will hear from him more in the future."
Standing in her living room and pointing to pictures of the son and two granddaughters she lost in Kuntar's attack, 82-year-old Nina Keren said she could not understand how Lebanon could hold a rapturous welcome for the man who had destroyed so much of her family: "He's a hero? Because he killed a 4-year-old? Because he smashed her head with his rifle?"
Kuntar was supposed to spend the rest of his life in prison but instead walked free with four Lebanese veterans of the 2006 war late Wednesday afternoon.
Although Kuntar's attack predated Hezbollah's existence and he has not identified with the group, Hezbollah rolled out a red-carpet welcome for him and the four others, who are said to be the last Lebanese prisoners held by Israel. Appearing at an elaborate ceremony in the border town of Naqoura, Kuntar wore the same uniform as the released fighters, along with a cap with the Hezbollah logo.
"Lebanon is shedding tears of joy," said a banner that also featured a picture of Olmert with his hand on his forehead and the caption, "Humiliation guaranteed."
Along with members of Hezbollah, many Palestinians also gathered in Naqoura, hoping to determine whether missing loved ones are among 199 bodies of Lebanese and Palestinian fighters that Israel returned on Wednesday. Killed during various conflicts over the past several decades, the bodies had been buried in Israel and were exhumed for the exchange.
"Dead or alive, any trace of him would be a blessing," said Fatima Alwane of her husband, Abdallah, a Palestinian fighter and the father of her 11 children. He disappeared in 1982, she said.
Kuntar and the released Hezbollah fighters were flown to Beirut, where they were greeted by top officials.
"Our joy will be complete when we achieve the liberation of all our land," said President Michel Suleiman at the airport, referring to a small parcel of land that remains in dispute along the Israel-Lebanon border.
Hamas, the armed Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip, also celebrated the exchange and said it had been encouraged by Hezbollah's success to "capture Zionist soldiers, in order to swap them with our sons in prison."
Hamas already has one Israeli soldier in custody, Gilad Shalit. He is believed to be alive, and Israel has been trying to negotiate his release.
Ibrahim reported from Naqoura.