In Wake Of Prisoner Swap, Israel Mourns, Reflects Two Israeli soldiers return home in coffins, two years after their kidnapping sparked a month-long war between Israel and Lebanon. They were sent back in exchange for Israel's release of five Lebanese prisoners. The country now reflects on the consequences of negotiating with Hezbollah.
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In Wake Of Prisoner Swap, Israel Mourns, Reflects

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In Wake Of Prisoner Swap, Israel Mourns, Reflects

In Wake Of Prisoner Swap, Israel Mourns, Reflects

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Today, a hero's welcome in Lebanon and preparations for burial in Israel. Five Lebanese militants will return to their country in a prisoner exchange. One of them was convicted nearly 30 years ago in Israel for murdering an Israeli family and a police officer. Israel got back the bodies of two of its soldiers. Two years ago, they were abducted in a cross-border raid by Hezbollah and that sparked a month-long war.

On the day of this controversial exchange, we have reports from both sides of the border. First to NPR's Eric Westervelt in Israel.

ERIC WESTERVELT: The fate of soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev had been unknown since they were seized in an ambush on July 12, 2006 while on a routine patrol near the Lebanese border. Hezbollah guerillas rained machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fired down on their armored jeeps. Three Israeli soldiers were killed on the spot and Goldwasser and Regev were taken captive.

They were reservist Israeli soldiers doing their annual duty in what many here call the people's army. Hezbollah steadfastly refused to give any proof of life or allow a Red Cross official to see them. Today, at the Rosh Hanikra border crossing on the northern Israel coast, the bodies of soldiers Goldwasser and Regev were returned in black coffins.

In many ways for Israel, today's exchange marks a grim and bitter finale to a war that ended two years ago.

Mr. YA'KOV AMIDROR (Retired Israeli Officer): It was a mistake to agree to such an exchange. Israel should not exchange bodies for live terrorists.

WESTERVELT: Retired Israeli Major General Ya'kov Amidror says today's swap is likely to endanger Israeli soldiers captured in the future.

Mr. AMIDROR: It's bad because in the future, the other side will not have a clear interest to keep alive our soldiers.

WESTERVELT: After the Hezbollah attacked two Julys ago, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed to the Israeli public that Israel would fight until Hezbollah was weakened and Israel's two abducted soldiers returned. Olmert said, quote, "Israel will not be held hostage by terror gangs."

After 34 days of fierce fighting, a ceasefire took effect with Israel's two soldiers still in captivity and Hezbollah declaring victory. A few thousand guerillas had stood up to the Middle East's biggest and best trained military.

Mickey Leibowitz, a friend of Ehud Goldwasser, has worked for the last two years to bring his friend back to Israeli soil. Leibowitz calls the exchange with Hezbollah today a difficult but necessary trade. Friends and the families, he says, can now start to mourn.

Mr. MICKEY LEIBOWITZ (Ehud Goldwasser's friend): It will be a new journey. It will be a journey of supporting the families and trying to cope with the news.

WESTERVELT: While polls here show most Israeli support the exchange, there's also anger that a war, a scathing report called grossly mismanaged, would in the end also include the release of Samir Kantar. He carried out one of the more infamous attacks in Israel. In April of 1979, he took part in an attack in the port city of Nahariya that killed two police officers and two members of the Haran family. A third family member, a two-year-old girl, was accidentally suffocated by her mother as she tried to muffle her daughter's crying while hiding.

After dragging the father and another daughter to the beach, prosecutors say, Samir Kantar shot the father, Danny, in front of his girl and then beat four-year-old, Einat, to death using a rifle and rocks.

Mr. RONEN SHAHAR (Brother of Eliyahu Shahar): He took Einat and crushed her head with the rocks of the sea. He's some kind of a monster. I don't know who can do that.

WESTERVELT: That's Ronen Shahar, brother of policeman Eliyahu Shahar, who was the first person killed by Kantar that night nearly 30 years ago. Ronen was 9 years old when his brother, the head of the household, was murdered. He says it shattered his world. He says granting Kantar his freedom is a disgrace.

Mr. SHAHAR: And he - I know today, I know that all my suffer(ph), the one that destroyed my life and my family life will go tomorrow and live there like a king. It's a very strange feeling. I don't know. I don't know.

WESTERVELT: There are incredibly strong military, cultural, and religious pressures in Israel to retrieve the body of any Jewish soldier. There's also a feeling here today that Israel is paying a much higher price than its enemies.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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