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Ex-prisoners get triumphant Beirut reception

Latest update : 2008-07-19

Five Lebanese prisoners, including convicted murderer Samir Qantar (left), were personally welcomed by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah before a roaring crowd in Beirut as Israelis marked the prisoner swap with a somber service.

Five Lebanese prisoners who crossed the Israel-Lebanon border as part of a prisoner exchange were greeted with a heroes’ welcome on Wednesday. The seniormost prisoner, Samir Qantar, clad in a grey T-shirt and faded jeans, smiled as the crowd shouted "Allahou Akbar!" (God is great.) 

The prisoners comprise Qantar, in jail since 1979 for killing two men and a child, and four other Lebanese prisoners. "Thank God we arrived at this day; this day of victory, never to return to a day of defeat. Thank God who gave me strength... and who always gave me hope in the moments of weaknesses," Qantar said.


"Thank God who gave me the ability to endure, challenge and face imprisonment. Thank God (who) resurrected in this country a resistance, this great Islamic resistance," he added.

Their repatriation completes the Israeli half of a prisoner exchange agreement. They were flown by Lebanese army helicopter to Beirut where they were greeted by President Michel Sleiman, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and parliament speaker Nabih Berri. 

“This is a victory for Hezbollah, but not just Hezbollah,” said Isabelle Dellerba, FRANCE 24 correspondent in Beirut. “At the Beirut airport, the prisoners were greeted by all the political factions.” 

Additionally, representatives from all the religious communities (Druze, Sunni, Shiite, Christian) were present at the airport as well.


Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Shiite party Hezbollah, appeared in person at public celebrations in southern Beirut for the release of the five Lebanese prisoners. Speaking to tens of thousands of followers, he said "This people (...) cannot be defeated.... the period of defeat is over and the time of victory has arrived."


Earlier on Wednesday, Israeli authorities formally identified the remains of the two Israeli soldiers whose abduction in 2006 had sparked a heavy military operation in Lebanon. The International Committee of the Red Cross took the coffins to 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 two years and four days ago was 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


In Lebanon, celebratory banners and flags are flying along the main coastal highway from Naqura to Lebanon's southern port city of Sidon. 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”.


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


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.


'A victory for resistance'

The Islamist Palestinian movement Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, called the prisoner swap  a "victory for the resistance."

"It proves that a useful way to liberate prisoners from the jails of the occupation is to capture Zionist soldiers, since the occupation refuses to release prisoners and keeps arresting more of them," spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement.

Hamas is also negotiating a similar exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured in a June 2006 raid.

Date created : 2008-07-17