Israeli officials identified the bodies as those of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were taken in a cross-border raid that sparked a month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 that killed about 1,200 people in Lebanon and 159 Israelis.
The soldiers had been believed to be dead, but Wednesday was the first confirmation for their families. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert planned a visit to an army base to express condolences to the families, and candle-light memorials were arranged by friends and family.
Regev’s father, Zvi, told Israel Radio he fell apart the moment he saw the coffins, reported the Associated Press.
“It was horrible to see it. I didn’t want to, I asked them to turn off the TV,” he said.
“We were always hoping that Udi and Eldad were alive and that they would come home and we would hug them.”
The swap was mediated by a U.N.-appointed German official and took 18 months to negotiate.
In return for the soldiers’ bodies, Israel will return five prisoners, including Samir Kantar, who was convicted and serving a life sentence for a 1979 attack that killed a 4-year-old girl, her father and a policeman. Israel is also planning to return the bodies of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters.
Hezbollah is assembling a red-carpet welcome ceremony Wednesday for the returned prisoners in the border town of Naqourah, reported the Washington Post. Many Palestinians are also gathering for the ceremony, hoping to determine if their family members are among the returned bodies.
Israel denounced Hezbollah’s planned celebration. “Samir Qantar is a brutal murderer of children and anybody celebrating him as a hero is trampling on basic human decency,” said Olmert’s spokesman Mark Regev, according to Reuters.
Kantar was considered an especially brutal and notorious criminal by the Israeli people. An Israeli court found that, in a night-time raid, Kantar shot a father in front of his young child, then smashed her head with his rifle butt. Kantar denies killing the child and has never expressed remorse.
The swap will likely be a boost for Hezbollah, whose popularity has suffered since a wave of attacks on Lebanese in May.
Hezbollah’s commander in south Lebanon, Sheik Nabil Kaouk, called the swap an “official admission of defeat” for Israel on Tuesday.
The European Union called the exchange a positive step, and a move toward the full implementation of Resolution 1701, which ended the war in the 2006 war, called for the release of the Israeli soldiers and a solution for the issue of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel.
Israel has participated in similar swaps in the past, in some cases releasing hundreds, or thousands, of prisoners in exchange for few Israeli soldiers.