In a deal brokered by the U.N., Hezbollah handed over two coffins containing the remains of Israeli soldiers abducted two years ago, in exchange for the release of five Lebanese prisoners. Analysts discuss the deal, and the debate surrounding it.
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The black coffins confirmed what Israelis had feared: the two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah two years ago were dead.
Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, two university students on reserve duty, were seized while on patrol in July 2006. Their capture triggered a 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah militants that came to an inconclusive end and left nearly 1,200 people dead in Lebanon and nearly 160 in Israel.
The swap, which took place near a border crossing in the northern Israeli town of Rosh HaNikra, was mediated by a U.N.-appointed German official and facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In exchange, Israel handed to Lebanon five Lebanese militants, all alive.
The most notorious prisoner is Samir Kantar, convicted in 1979 for murders still vivid in Israeli memory, the killing of an Israeli policeman; then, the shooting a young civilian, Danny Haran; and smashing the skull of his 4-year-old daughter. A second daughter was smothered accidentally by Haran's wife during the kidnapping.
Today, Israel also returned to Lebanon the bodies of 199 Arabs killed while infiltrating Israel in recent years. Hezbollah supporters poured onto the streets of Lebanon's towns, celebrating their release. And joining the festivities, in a rare public appearance, was Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Others in Lebanon hailed the release as a victory.
ALI BAZZI, Member of Parliament, Lebanon (through translator): Today is a national and historic day, with renewed victory for the Lebanese determination and for the victory of the martyrs, prisoners, and resistors who are victorious over the tools of the Israeli terrorists.
AHMED HAMED, Palestinian Refugee (through translator):
I am as old as the Palestinian revolution and have never seen an event like this. I feel proud of this great victory.
The Israeli cabinet overwhelmingly approved the swap yesterday in a 22-3 vote.
SHIMON PERES, President, Israel:
It's not a happy choice. I mean, on one hand, we have the most terrible murderer; on the other hand, we have our commitment to our own boys, who were sent to fight for their country in danger. And it is our moral duty and our heartfelt wish to see them come back.
The three ministers who opposed the deal argued the swap would make it more difficult for Israel to win the release of a third Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit. He was captured by Hamas militants near Gaza two years ago and is believed to be alive.
EYAL REGEV, Brother of Eldad Regev (through translator): This deal involves a very painful price. On the other hand, we must be proud of the decision made by the state of Israel to bring back Eldad and Ehud. It was the moral obligation of the state of Israel.
The fate of another high-profile Israeli prisoner, flyer Ron Arad, remains unknown after decades of captivity. But in several exchanges, Israel has handed over Arab militants in return for Israeli prisoners, most recently in 2004.