NAQURA, Lebanon – The Lebanese resistance movement Hizbullah on Wednesday, July 16, swapped the bodies of two Israeli soldiers with 5 Lebanese prisoners and the remains of hundreds of fighters, in a landmark deal greeted with triumph in Lebanon but anguish in Israel.
"Today we hand over Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev," Hizbullah official Wafiq Safa said at the Naqura border crossing between Lebanon and Israel as men placed two black coffins of the Israeli soldiers on the ground amid a crowd of onlookers, reported Agence France Presse (AFP).
"Despite the war that was waged against us and despite international pressure to reveal the fate of the two Israeli soldiers, no-one has known their fate until this moment."
Hizbullah handed on Wednesday morning the bodies of the two soldiers, seized in a cross-border raid into Israel in July 2006, to the International Committee Red Cross under the UN-mediated swap.
In return, Israel turned the bodies of 12 fighters, including the body of Dalal al-Maghrebi, a female fighter with the Palestinian Fatah movement.
Israel is also to transfer to Lebanon the remains of 199 Palestinian and Arab fighters exhumed over the past week.
After few hours, in the last phase of the swap, Israel handed the five Lebanese prisoners, who were the last reaming Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails.
The prisoners included Samir Kuntar, 45, the longest held Lebanese prisoner in Israel, who has been in jail since 1979 serving multiple life terms for his part in a deadly attack on an Israeli town.
Negotiations between Israel and Hizbullah to conclude the deal have been handled by a UN-appointed German mediator.
The deal also includes handing Israel information on missing airman Ron Arad, whose plane crashed in Lebanon in 1986.
The UN-brokered swap is the eighth between Israel and Hizbullah since 1991.
The largest prisoner swap between the two sides took place in January 2004 when Israel released 400 Palestinians and 31 others, including 23 Lebanese, in exchange for an Israeli reservist and the remains of three Israeli soldiers.
Tears of Joy, Pain
In Lebanon, a mood of celebration welcomed the prisoners and the fighters’ bodies.
"Lebanon is shedding tears of joy," said one banner at the border, where crowds of people waited to welcome home loved ones or receive their remains.
"Israel is shedding tears of pain."
Lebanon has declared a national holiday to mark the swap, after which Israel will hold no more Hizbullah fighters.
Yellow Hizbullah flags lined the streets in towns and villages across south Lebanon as well as along the coastal highway from the city of Naqura to Beirut, the capital.
A hero’s welcome was prepared at the border for the five prisoners, especially Kuntar who spent two thirds of his life as a prisoner in Israel.
Red carpet ceremonies were also prepared in Naqura, where patriotic songs and excerpts of speeches by Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah bellowed from loudspeakers.
The leader of Lebanon’s mainly Maronite Christian Free Patriotic Movement and former army commander-in-chief, Michel Aoun, said the swap proved Israel had been defeated in the 2006 war.
"I believe today is the crowning glory of the war," he said.
On the other side, the mood in Israel has been somber.
Israelis lamented the deal as the latest defeat by the hands of the Lebanese resistance.
"This is the day in which the Lebanon war is ending," said Ehud Ya’ari, Arab affairs analyst for Israel’s Channel Two television, referring to Israel’s 34-day offensive in Lebanon after the two soldiers were seized in July 2006.
The agreement has caused controversy in Israel, with some ministers opposed to the possibility of exchanging live prisoners for dead bodies.
Others said the exchange raises the question whether the war in Lebanon — which killed more than 1,200 Lebanese including a large number of women and children and 160 Israelis, mostly troops — could still be justified.
"This is a black day in Israel’s history," Tzahi Hanegbi, head of the Israeli parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, told the Israeli radio.
Hanegbi said the swap had undermined the rationale for launching the war after the two soldiers were seized on July 12, 2006.
"In the end we gave what we could have given on the morning of July 13.
"Ultimately we are surrendering."