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Israel and Lebanon prisoner swap

(Retrieved from The Guardian web site on July 30, 2008)
July 16 2008:
 Israel and Lebanon's militant Hizbullah group swapped prisoners today. Israel freed five prisoners and the bodies of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters in exchange for the bodies of the two Israeli soldiers, who's capture at a cross-border raid sparked the war of 2006. The prisoner swap was greeted with triumph in Lebanon, and anguish in Israel.

Middle East: Israel swaps prisoners for soldiers' remains

· Murderer among inmates returned to Lebanon
· Hizbullah delivers caskets containing servicemen

Five Lebanese prisoners, including a notorious murderer, were freed by Israel yesterday in a swap after the Hizbullah militant group handed over two black caskets containing the remains of Israeli soldiers.

Although it had been widely assumed in Israel that the two soldiers were dead, it was the first confirmation for their families that Eldad Regev, 27, and Ehud Goldwasser, 32, had died either during or after their capture in the Hizbullah ambush two years ago that sparked the Lebanon war.

A convoy of Hizbullah cars delivered the caskets to the border crossing at Rosh Hanikra, where they were carried over by the Red Cross and handed to the Israeli military. Several hours later, after forensic tests on the remains, the military sent two generals to formally deliver the news of the soldiers' deaths to their families.

Relatives and crowds of mourners gathered at the family homes. Goldwasser's father, Shlomo, said the sight of the coffins in television footage "was not easy to see, though it didn't come as much of a surprise ... Coming face-to-face with reality is always tough", he told Israel Radio.

Regev's father, Zvi, said: "It was horrible to see it. We were always hoping that Udi and Eldad were alive and that they would come home and we would hug them."

Israel had begun by handing over the bodies of 199 Palestinian and Lebanese fighters who had been killed in clashes in the area in recent years. Their remains were delivered in wooden coffins. Several hours later Israel delivered the five Lebanese prisoners to the border crossing and they were taken over to be welcomed with an elaborate Hizbullah celebration.

Four were Hizbullah fighters captured by Israel in the 2006 war. The fifth was Samir Qantar, who was convicted of several murders, attempted murder and kidnapping after he was involved in a brutal attack in northern Israel in 1979, when he was 16. Since then he has spent his life in Israeli jails. He was responsible for shooting Danny Haran and killing his four-year-old daughter, Einat, by smashing his rifle butt on her head. Haran's wife, Smadar, hid in their room with their second daughter, Yael, who was two, and as she tried to stifle her daughter's cries she accidentally smothered the toddler to death.

Far from heralding a more peaceful relationship the prisoner swap has strengthened the Lebanese militant group, which claims the return of Qantar and the other prisoners as a victory over Israel.

The 2006 war claimed nearly 1,200 lives, mostly on the Lebanese side, and ended in a ceasefire after 34 days. Since then the Israeli-Lebanese border has remained tense but quiet. However, Israel says it believes Hizbullah has rearmed.

The Israelis will be buried at military funerals today. In contrast, Hizbullah had set up a stage in the Lebanese town of Naqoura to await Qantar and the others. A band played and Hizbullah fighters rode on horseback past the crowd. A larger rally was planned for Beirut in the evening.

Although Qantar was never a fighter in the Shia Hizbullah movement and is not even a Shia, he has been adopted by the group and his release will be used to garner political capital in Lebanon and the Arab world.