MidEast Swap Triggers Controversy, Painful Memories

This morning at 9.40 Israel time, 24 months and five days after Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were abducted by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid that precipitated the Second Lebanon War, the bodies of the two reserve soldiers were returned to Israel.

Hezbollah officials arrived shortly after 9 a.m. at the Naqoura border crossing, which borders the Israeli town of Rosh Hanikra. Ignoring reporters' questions about the state of the two captives, they waited until they were surrounded by photographers and cameramen before dramatically unloading and displaying two black wooden coffins.

Hezbollah security official Wafik Safa then said, "We are handing over the two Israeli soldiers that were captured by the resistance ... and whose fate has been unknown until this moment. Now you know their fate."

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) then transferred the two coffins to the Israeli side of the border, where forensic examiners identified the badly decomposed corpses.

While the IDF forensic examiner's report, issued shortly after the war, had concluded that the two men were highly unlikely to have survived the wounds they sustained during the July 12, 2006 raid, and the prime minister's office had reluctantly announced nearly one month ago that the two men were considered dead, Hezbollah had steadfastly refused to give any official word on their fate.

Thus, at 9.39 a.m., the Goldwasser and Regev families could still hope that their loved ones would emerge alive from the back of the Hezbollah truck. But by 9.40, that hope was extinguished.

Eldad Regev's father, Zvi, told Israeli Army Radio, "It was a terrible thing to see, really terrible. I was always optimistic, and I hoped all the time that I would meet Eldad and hug him." A commentator on Israel's Channel 10 news contemptuously referred to the Shi'ite militia's insistence on playing games until the last possible second as an "act of necrophilia."

As the image of the coffins was broadcast on Israeli television, a muted wail of grief was heard from the friends and relatives gathered outside the Regev home in Kiryat Motzkin. Eldad Regev's aunt, Hannah, collapsed and was attended to by paramedics.

In exchange for the bodies of the abducted soldiers, Israel agreed to transfer the bodies of 185 Palestinians and Lebanese militants who had been killed by the IDF while attempting to infiltrate Israel, to release four Hezbollah militants who had been captured during the Second Lebanon War, and to release Israel's most notorious political prisoner - the Lebanese Druze, Samir Kuntar.

Kuntar was sentenced in 1979 to life in prison for committing a horrifying terror attack that is seared on the Israeli collective consciousness. Shortly after midnight on April 22, 1979, Kuntar, who was then 16 years old, slipped into Israeli territorial waters on a rubber dinghy, accompanied by three fighters from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The four men landed on an Israeli beach in the town of Nahariya, just 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of Lebanon.

After killing a police officer that came upon them by chance, the men broke into the apartment of the Haran family, located just two blocks from the beach. While Smadar Haran hid in a crawlspace with her 2 year-old daughter Yael, Kuntar dragged her husband Danny and their 4 year-old daughter Einat to the beach. Kuntar then shot Danny Haran in front of his daughter's eyes, and then used the butt of his rifle to smash the girl's head against the rocks. Meanwhile, Smadar discovered that she had accidentally smothered her daughter to death while covering her mouth to stop her from crying out and alerting the terrorists to their hiding place. Five years ago, Smadar Haran's first-person account of that night was published in the Washington Post.

While recognizing the moral imperative of bringing home all its soldiers, whether dead or alive, it is painful for Israelis to see Kuntar released. Most people thought - or hoped - that he would die in prison. At the very least, Kuntar's release should be granted only in exchange for a lot more than two corpses. For a little while, it looked as though Israel would receive that "something big" in the form of definitive information about the fate of Ron Arad, the Israeli Air Force pilot who was captured in 1986 by Amal, a secular Shi'a militia led by Nabih Berri. Many believe that Amal later "sold" Arad to Iran, which backs Hezbollah.

Hezbollah did turn over a diary and some letters written by Arad 20 years ago, along with some photos from the same period that were given saturation coverage in the Israeli media. But Prime Minister Olmert said the report about Arad was "completely inadequate." For a brief moment it looked as though Olmert might cancel the prisoner exchange deal, which was brokered by an anonymous German diplomat over a period of 18 months. But then the Israeli cabinet gave its approval in a final vote, and the exchange began this morning.

Perhaps most difficult for Israelis is the knowledge that Kuntar, who committed his bloody deeds on behalf of the Palestinians at a time when Hezbollah was not a player in Lebanon, is to be received as a hero in his native country. Hezbollah is organizing and leading the celebrations, with banners proclaiming "Israel is shedding tears of pain while Lebanon celebrates," a parade and lots of yellow Hezbollah flags.

Prime Minister Fuad Saniora declared a national holiday "to celebrate the liberation of prisoners from the jails of the Israeli enemy and the return of the remains of martyrs." According to a report on the Lebanese news site Naharnet, Druze leader Walid Jumblat, President Michel Suleiman, Prime Minister Saniora and the al-Mustaqbal Movement will participate in the Hezbollah-led welcoming ceremony for the Lebanese prisoners.

"How," asked several Israeli friends, "Can the Lebanese celebrate the release of a child murderer?"

In fact, there is ample evidence to show that not all Lebanese are cheering the return of Samir Kuntar.

Comments from Lebanese reader in response to the Naharnet report of the national celebrations are contemptuous, with many describing Kuntar as a child killer and a disgrace to Lebanon. Lebanese blogger Abu Kais quotes an editorial published on the Now Lebanon site:

The prisoner swap is not the whole deal, just the final clause. Conveniently forgotten are the reams of gory appendices in a much larger and bloodier contract written out almost exactly two years ago, with all of Lebanon as collateral. Indeed, the full audit is still ongoing.

How much is the Resistance's pledge worth? Add to the two Israeli bodies the bodies of 1,200 Lebanese civilians, nearly 400 of them children under the age of 13, sacrificed by Hezbollah to secure Kantar's return. Add to that the 4,400 wounded civilians, of whom almost 700 are permanently disabled. Add to that those killed and wounded, most of them children, by the cluster bombs still littering large swaths of South Lebanon. Add to that the billions of dollars in destroyed homes, infrastructure and livelihoods.

In the final tally, Kantar - whose alleged taste for violence far exceeds the remit of the typical heroic freedom fighter - is a very expensive man. For make no mistake, his release is the sole profit weighed against the thousands of Lebanese dead and wounded. The four other Lebanese prisoners to be released were themselves captured on his account during the July War, and the number and names of the Palestinians to be freed are entirely at Israel's discretion.

So Kantar will be freed, and Hezbollah's word is once again proven to be Lebanon's bond. We hope and pray that any Lebanese prisoners still held in Israeli jails come at a cheaper price in the future. If each is as expensive as Mr. Kantar has been, they may find themselves heroically repatriated to a desolate wasteland.

And rather than comment directly, Lebanese blogger Jeha posts a poem that "welcomes" a "child killer."

Over in the Israeli blogosphere, Jerusalem Post news editor Amir Mizroch posts an analysis of the deal on his blog, Forecast Highs:

Was all the death and destruction wrought on Lebanon during the war worth a deal for four captured fighters, Samir Kuntar and dozens of dead bodies? Nasrallah is not complaining: Hizbullah has been strengthened since the war, it has veto power in the new Lebanese government, and much of the shattered South has been rebuilt or is in the process of reconstruction, with sizable funding from Iran. In the years since Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 until the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Hizbullah amassed some 14,000 rockets of various types and ranges. In the two years since the war, they have amassed some 40,000. Some of their rockets can even reach south of Hadera. UN Resolution 1701 is in tatters, and UNIFIL is not a hindrance to Hizbullah's operations.

Does the deal strengthen or weaken Israel? Depends on who you ask. The senior defense official thinks it's a bad deal - it weakens our government system and strengthens "rule by reality TV format," where every decision is based on popularity ratings and media headlines. It shows that only public pressure, lobby groups and media campaigns can get kidnapped soldiers back, and not a steadfast, decisive government.

Professor Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs, summarizes Israel's ambivalence over the deal by describing it as "somewhere between a necessary tragedy and a mistake."

Smadar Haran, who has behaved with admirable dignity and strength over the past three decades, told the New York Times that Kuntar was not her "personal prisoner."

"We live in a country where there is a framework for making decisions, I asked [the prime minister's office] not to think about my personal pain and to make decisions according to the interests of the state."

The widow of Danny Haran remarried and had two more children. She still lives in Nahariya. In an ironic twist of fate, the parents of Ehud Goldwasser are her neighbours. While she insisted upon continuing to live her life, she understands, she says, that the parents of the abducted soldiers needed - and deserved - closure.

"What happened to me and my family will always be part of me, part of my personal pain, but it does not mean that I don't see the pain of others, the Goldwasser and Regev families," she said.

Perhaps now, two years after the war, the people of Israel will also feel the relief that comes with a sense of closure.