As Lebanon ended a night of festivities to celebrate the return of five Lebanese detainees from Israel, the Jewish state was burying soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.
Their coffins were handed over to Israel on Wednesday in a UN-brokered prisoner swap deal. In exchange, Israeli authorities released four Hezbollah fighters captured during the 2006 war, convicted triple-murderer Samir Qantar and the remains of some 200 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters killed over the years.
Thousands attended the funerals for the two Israeli soldiers whose abduction sparked a heavy military operation in Lebanon in 2006. Defence Minister Ehud Barak attended Goldwasser’s burial in the northern town of Nahariya and declared that Israel was "heartbroken" and had "paid a heavy price" to bring the bodies home.
The deal struck with the Shiite party Hezbollah drew a lot of criticism in Israel, though the majority of Israelis agreed the army was right to honour their pledge not to leave any soldier behind. “It’s a day of resentment and anger,” says FRANCE 24’s Marc de Chalvron in Israel. “People are angry over the way the exchange was carried out. It’s difficult to avoid the sense of humiliation and defeat,” he said.
Regev, the second soldier whose remains were exchanged in the deal, was buried later in the day in Haifa.
Disturbed by images of celebrations
Israelis also condemned the celebrations in Lebanon, especially the hero’s welcome given to Qantar, jailed in Israel since 1979 for the murder of two men and a little girl.
GRN Correspondent Annette Young says Israelis were especially disturbed to see images of celebrations beamed out of Southern Beirut yesterday evening. “There was a lot of anger expressed on Israeli Radio talk programmes, especially over the release of Qantar,” Young reported, referring to the horror felt in Israel over Qantar’s crime.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert condemned the festivities by saying, “Woe betide the people who celebrate the release of a beastly man who bludgeoned the skull of a four-year-old toddler".
The prisoner swap has also raised concerns among Israelis that the such a swap risks bolstering its arch-foes in the region. According to Young, Israeli authorities are very concerned that Hezbollah may attempt to strike again at the Jewish state after Wednesday’s prisoner release.
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.
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 Goldwasser and Regev were dead at the time. However many Israeli experts, including Leibovich, say that the matter remains unconfirmed.
The Jerusalem Post quoted officials as saying both men died in an ambush on their Humvee. Goldwasser suffered a lethal wound to the chest from a rocket-propelled grenade. His comrade, Regev, appeared to have been shot in the head, perhaps as he attempted to escape the burning vehicle and may have died shortly afterwards.
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.”
A heroes’ welcome
In Lebanon, fireworks and celebratory banners welcomed the five Lebanese prisoners as crowds chanted "Allahou Akbar!" (God is great.)
Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Shiite party Hezbollah, made a rare appearance at public celebrations, alongside the released prisoners, at a suburb in southern Beirut. Speaking to tens of thousands of followers, Nasrallah spoke from a stage and said, "the period of defeat is over and the time of victory has arrived."
"This people and this nation and this country that gave a clear picture to the world... cannot be defeated," he added.
Beaming while standing next to the Shiite leader, Qantar also called it a day of victory. "Thank God we arrived at this day, this day of victory, never to return to a day of defeat,” he said. “Thank God who gave me strength…and who always gave me hope in the moments of weaknesses."