“A nation in tears” is how President Shimon Peres summarised the nerve-wracking Wednesday in which Israel received the bodies of captured soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud (Udi) Goldwasser in return for the remains of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters, four captured Hizbollah men and convicted murderer Samir Kuntar.
It was not just an apt description of the public mood in Israel, but also the image that the government was trying to project to counter the scenes of jubilation in Beirut on the return of the Lebanese prisoners and the declarations of victory issued by Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
The final phase of the prisoner exchange had been the subject of negotiations almost from the end of the Second Lebanon War. It was put in motion by a government decision on Tuesday when the cabinet voted 22-3 in favour of completing the deal.
The next stage was the signing of Kuntar’s amnesty by Justice Minister Daniel Friedman and then President Peres.
Then Kuntar — who in 1979 killed three Israelis, including a four-year-old-girl, and was responsible for the death of a two-year-old baby — the four Lebanese and the 199 bodies were moved to holding areas near the border.
For the families anxiously waiting confirmation, the image that finally extinguished their hopes was that of the two black coffins delivered by Hizbollah to the Nakura border crossing.
Until then, despite all the reported evidence and intelligence assessments that the two soldiers had been killed during the attack on their patrol at the Israel-Lebanon border on July 12, 2006, hope had remained for the two families.
“Ending this phase is important for us but also for the entire people of Israel who need to see that the Israeli government does everything to bring back those who risked their lives for it. If Hassan Nasrallah’s biggest achievement of this war was to keep two families anxious till the last moment, than he can have this accomplishment,” Shlomo Goldwasser said early on Wednesday morning, following a sleepless night.
“No matter what happens in the next few hours, I will stay Udi’s father,” Mr Goldwasser continued, struggling to hold back tears. At 2.30pm, all doubts were over. The final identification of the badly decomposed bodies was complete. IDF generals arrived to
notify the families.
Following the identification, Kuntar and the four Lebanese were transferred to Hizbollah on the other side of the border.
They were dressed in fresh Hizbollah combat fatigues and paraded at a victory rally in Beirut. Hassan Nasrallah, who appeared at the rally for only a few seconds, out of fear of an Israeli assassination, said that “this country and this nation have shown a clear picture to the world and to the enemy that we cannot be defeated”.
Hassan Nasrallah mocked Israel saying that “they did not know the fate of their soldiers, this was an important position of power for us”.
The Israeli government tried to counter Hizbollah’s victory festival, highlighting Kuntar’s murders and emphasising that Israel valued the lives of its soldiers above all and would do everything to get them back.
Israel is also trying to play down the effect the deal will have on the Arab world. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s promise to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday that he would release Palestinian prisoners was designed in part to minimise the claims that only capturing Israeli soldiers can force Israel to release prisoners. The next priority for the government is to secure the release of soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas, emboldened by this week’s exchange.
The military funerals of Mr Regev and Mr Goldwasser were to be held yesterday morning.