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Latest update : 2008-07-16

Five Lebanese prisoners, including longest-held detainee Samir Qantar, have crossed the border into Lebanon in exchange for the remains of two Israeli soldiers. Israel released the fighters following a deal with Shiite party Hezbollah.

On Wednesday at 4pm GMT+2, a white van carrying Samir Qantar and four other Lebanese prisoners crossed the Israeli-Lebanese border, completing the Israeli half of the prisoner exchange agreement. The news was met with rejoicing in Lebanon.


“I feel ashamed to see celebration for a murderer,” said Avital Leibovich, of the Israeli Defence Force, in an interview with FRANCE 24. 


The five prisoners include Samir Qantar, in jail since 1979 for killing two men and a child. The four others are Khaled Zidan, Maher Kurani, Mohammed Sarur and Hussein Suleiman, fighters captured during the 34-day Lebanon war in 2006. That devastating war killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon and 160 in Israel.



The handover


Israel and Hezbollah are carrying out a UN-brokered prisoner exchange on Wednesday, a day after the Israeli cabinet gave its final approval 22 to 3.


As for the Hezbollah half of the exchange, Israeli radio confirmed that the two coffins handed over by Hezbollah early on Wednesday did indeed contain the remains of Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.


Leibovich confirmed that the process of identifying the bodies was finished: “We completed our identification process with the rabbinate and the medical board.”  As for what will now happen to the corpses, Leibovich reports that they will be taken to a secluded facility where the families can receive them privately, away from the media.


Israel is also transferring to Lebanon the remains of some 200 Palestinian and Hezbollah fighters exhumed over the past week. A truck carrying the coffins of the first of those fighters included has crossed the Israeli border towards Lebanon.


Dead or Alive?

A question that had been plaguing the nation of Israel since the two soldiers were taken 2 years and 4 days ago is that of whether the soldiers were dead or merely injured at the time of capture.  A Hezbollah official, Wafik Safa, claimed that army reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were dead at the time.  However, many Israeli experts, including Leibovich, say that the matter remains unconfirmed.


Marc de Chalvron, a FRANCE 24 special correspondent reporting from the Rosh Haniki crossing on the Israeli-Lebanese border, spoke of the atmosphere in Israel. “There is a lot of anger here from people who saw it as a psychological war on the part of Hezbollah that they withheld the information as to whether the Israeli prisoners were dead at the time of capture.”


Mourning in Israel, celebration in Lebanon


Israeli President Shimon Peres on Tuesday pardoned the five Lebanese, saying it was "not a happy day for having to free such murderers but we have a moral responsibility to bring our soldiers home."


The mood in Israel has been sombre. Samir Qantar is a Lebanese Druze and the longest-serving Arab prisoner in Israel. He was sentenced to several life terms for a 1979 attack that killed two men and a little girl, and “still haunts Israel”, according to FRANCE 24’s Marc de Chalvron.


In Lebanon, celebratory banners and flags are flying along the main coastal highway from Naqura to Lebanon's southern port city of Sidon and the cabinet has declared Wednesday a national holiday. Israel's Jerusalem Post newspaper has billed the festivities as "a celebration of evil."


“There are a lot of questions in Lebanon as to whether this was worth it,” says FRANCE 24 correspondent Bojan Preradovic. While the “Hezbollah regards it as a victory”, for some, the war may have been “a price too high to pay”.


Israel still awaits information on navigator Ron Arad, missing since his plane was shot down over Lebanon in October 1986.  A Hezbollah report said he was probably dead.



Date created : 2008-07-16