Hezbollah gives coffins to Israel in prisoner swap

July 16, 2008 10:11:29 AM PDT
Hezbollah handed over two black coffins Wednesday with the bodies of two Israeli soldiers and Israel prepared to set free a notorious attacker in a dramatic prisoner swap that will close a painful chapter from the 2006 war in Lebanon.The U.N.-mediated swap closes a painful chapter for Israel, which launched a war in 2006 against Hezbollah in response to the soldiers' capture in a cross-border raid. It is likely to be a significant boost for Hezbollah at a time when it is trying to rebuild a reputation tarnished after its guerrillas turned their guns on fellow Lebanese in May.

After the bodies handed over by Hezbollah were confirmed to be those of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, Israel was to turn over five Lebanese prisoners ? including a militant convicted in what is perceived here as a monstrous attack.

Forensic teams investigated the remains for several hours on Wednesday before identifying them, according to Israeli defense officials who spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement.

Lebanon's Al-Manar TV quoted senior Hezbollah official Wafik Safa at the border as saying the bodies were in a "mutilated" shape from injuries they suffered during the raid.

Meanwhile, a Red Cross tractor-trailer arrived in Lebanon Wednesday 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.

Hezbollah paramedics in green fluorescent jackets and black caps unloaded the coffins, each marked with a white sheet of paper identifying the remains.

Though Israeli officials had suspected Goldwasser and Regev were dead, the sight of the two coffins was the first concrete sign of the young men's fate. Their Hezbollah captors had withheld any information about them since they were captured on July 12, 2006.

"We are handing over the two Israeli soldiers that were captured by the resistance ... and whose fate has been unknown until this moment," Safa said. "Now you know their fate."

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

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

"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."

An aunt of Regev's sank to the ground when she saw the coffins appear on the small TV. Some 50 friends, neighbors and family sobbed, rocked back and forth in prayer or pulled their hair.

"Nasrallah, you will pay," several vowed, referring to Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. Other people in the crowd criticized Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, saying the soldiers died for nothing.

The family's neighbor, Simona Adda, 68, said her children had grown up with Regev. "It's the saddest day for Israel. They kept us waiting until the last second to learn the fate of our sons," she said, then burst out crying.

Goldwasser's father, Shlomo, said the sight of the coffins "was not easy to see, though it didn't come as much of a surprise."

"But coming face-to-face with reality is always tough," he told Israel Radio.

The sorrow that swept across Israel with the images of the coffins contrasted sharply with the hero's welcome that awaited convicted killer Samir Kantar upon his return to a homeland he left 29 years ago to set out on his deadly mission.

Hezbollah supporters set up a makeshift stage in the coastal town of Naqoura and a drum corps awaited the prisoners' return. A giant red carpet was rolled out along a road next to the seashore.

On the platform stood a large photograph of a weeping Israeli woman. A nearby sign read, "Israel is shedding tears of pain." Another read: "Lebanon is shedding tears of joy."

Hundreds of Lebanese wearing yellow caps crowded in a narrow corridor between rows of banana trees and metal railings set up to along the road. An overhang shielded Shiite Muslim sheiks and other dignitaries from the midday sun.

An official ceremony was to follow at Beirut Airport with Lebanon's president, prime minister and parliament speaker in attendance. Nasrallah was to address what is expected to be a huge celebration at the group's stronghold south of Beirut.

In the Gaza Strip, controlled by the violently anti-Israel Hamas group, people celebrated in the streets and handed out sweets in support of Hezbollah.

Ismail Haniyeh, Gaza's Hamas prime minister, called Kantar an "Arab nationalist hero" and said his release was "a great day for the Arab nation." He warned Israel that it will also have to "pay the price" for a soldier Hamas has been holding since June 2006.

"As there was an honorable exchange today, we are determined to have an honorable exchange for our own prisoners," held in Israeli jails, Haniyeh said. "There is a captive Israeli soldier, and thousands of our sons are in prison. ... Let them answer our demands."

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

In Berlin, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was encouraged by the prisoner swap and hoped that it was the first of many more. Ban praised the U.N.-appointed German official who shuttled between the sides for 18 months to mediate Wednesday's exchange.

Putting aside decades of resistance and breaking what had been a long-held taboo, Israel's Cabinet gave final approval Tuesday to free Kantar. The swap was codenamed "And the sons shall return."

Although polls show Israelis solidly endorse the exchange, many see Kantar as the embodiment of evil.

In the dead of night on April 22, 1979, Kantar and three other gunmen made their way in a rubber dinghy from Lebanon to the sleepy Israeli coastal town of Nahariya, five miles south of the border.

There, they killed a policeman who stumbled upon them, then burst into the apartment of Danny Haran, herding him and his 4-year-old daughter out of the house at gunpoint to the beach below, where they were killed.

The attack is seared in Israel's collective consciousness because witnesses recounted that Kantar shot Danny Haran in front of his child, then killed her by smashing her skull against a rock 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.

Kantar, who acted on behalf of a militant Palestinian faction, denies killing the older child and has never expressed remorse over the incident. He was 16 years old at the time.

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