Israel yesterday returned five Lebanese prisoners to Hezbollah after
receiving the bodies of two kidnapped Israeli soldiers from the Lebanese group
in a prisoners swap between the two sides.
Four imprisoned Hezbollah militants and a convicted Lebanese killer named
Samir Kuntar were handed over to representatives of the International Committee
of the Red Cross (ICRC) at the Rosh Hanikra border crossing, who then
transferred them to the Lebaneseside.
Kuntar and the other four were pardoned by Israeli court and President Shimon
Peres Tuesday in order to carry out the exchange, as the Israeli cabinet gave
the final go-head to the prisoners swap deal with Hezbollah.
Prior to their return, Hezbollah delivered two bodies contained in black
coffins. Following several hours of DNA tests, an Israeli forensic team
concluded that the bodies were the remains of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev,
who were captured by the Lebanese group two years ago.
The exchange is the major part of the swap deal mediated by a UN-appointed
German official, under which Israel will also return the bodies of 199 others
who were killed while infiltrating northern Israel.
Hezbollah is also required to return the remains of Israeli soldiers killed
in south Lebanon during a 34-day war sparked by Goldwasser and Regev's capture
in 2006. Meanwhile, the group also calls for the Jewish state to release scores
of Palestinian prisoners on a later date.
The dramatic swap deal also saw that Hezbollah, days ago, transferred to
Israel an 80-page report on the fate of missing Israeli navigator Ron Arad, who
was shot down over Lebanon in 1986and held by Shiite Amal group until the night
of May 4, 1988, whenhe disappeared.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has believed the release of Kuntar to be
the last bargaining chip for information on Arad. But Israel said the report
supplied by Hezbollah on Arad had failed to clarify his fate.
SORROW VS JOY
Seeing the black coffins on TV, many Israelis, foremost the two captives'
families and friends, burst into tears, and an aunt of Regev's collapsed. Tens
of people lit up memorial candles outside the soldiers' houses.
Although Israeli army said before the swap that they believed Goldwasser and
Regev, were dead, the two families insisted that no evidence could verify that
conclusion, and had been clinging to the last glimmer of hope.
"It was a terrible thing to see, really terrible. I was always optimistic,
and I hoped all the time that I would meet Eldad and hug him," Regev's father
Zvi told Army Radio.
"It is not easy to see this, although there was not much surprise to it,"
Goldwasser's father Shlomo told Israel Radio. "But confronting this reality was
"The entire Israeli nation is enveloping and hugging the Goldwasser and Regev
families in their mourning. This is a day in which doubts have been removed
regarding Udi and Eldad's fates butalso regarding Israel's moral might," said
Olmert in a special statement.
Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are to meet the families later
Wednesday when the bereaved will bid farewell to their beloved ones. Funerals
have been scheduled for Thursday.
The sorrow marked a sharp contrast with the joyous atmosphere among Hezbollah
supporters, as the return of Kuntar, who was sentenced to life plus 40 years in
prison for murdering three family members and a police officer in Nahariya in
1979, and the four militants is seen as a big victory for the militant group.
TV footage showed that the five returnees received a red-carpet welcome at
the Lebanese side, and a large event is being staged in Beirut to celebrate
"I pity the people that are celebrating at this time the release of an animal
that crushed the skull of a little girl of four," said Olmert, referring to
HOPE VS DANGER
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the execution of the swap deal,
saying that he hoped that it was the first of many more.
As for Israelis, the next similar case is to secure the return of reservist
Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped two years ago by three Palestinian militant
groups led by Hamas and believed to be still alive.
Israel and Hamas had been negotiating over Shalit's release for months
through the middleman Egypt, and a ceasefire deal reached between the two sides
last month called for more efforts to advance the talks.
However, the Gaza Strip ruler, which demanded Israel release hundreds of
Palestinians in exchange for Shalit, announced earlier Wednesday that it had
halted the Shalit talks because Israel did not commit itself to the ceasefire in
Hamas also congratulated the release of the Lebanese prisoners. Hamas
spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the swap represents "a great victory of the
resistance" and that Hamas would not abandon the Palestinian prisoners jailed in
"This is also a proof that kidnapping Zionist soldiers is the best way to
free the prisoners since the occupation keeps arresting them," Abu Zuhri added.
On Tuesday, Israeli National Security Council issued the most severe warning
this year that terror cells in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula were planning kidnapping
attempts against Israeli citizens, and urged Israelis traveling in the area to
Meanwhile, Israeli army have beefed up security measures along the border
with Lebanon, amid worries that Hezbollah might launch attacks against Israel
after the prisoners swap.