Israel handed five Lebanese prisoners over to the Hezbollah movement, as part of a swap for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers (photo, from smh.com.au).
On Wednesday, the freed men received a heroes’ welcome when they arrived at the Naqoura border crossing, just hours after Israel received coffins containing the remains of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, two Israeli army reservists captured in 2006.
The prisoners released were four men captured during the 34-day war sparked by the capture of Mr Goldwasser and Mr Regev, and Samir Kuntar. The latter was jailed in 1979 for the murder of three members of one Israeli family.
They were the last remaining Lebanese in Israeli custody.
The bodies of almost 200 people have also been handed over to Hezbollah, including the body of Dalal al-Maghrebi, a female fighter with the Palestinian Fatah movement.
Speculations about at least one of the Israeli soldiers being alive have been heard, but Hezbollah TV confirmed that both were dead.
Red Cross vehicles took two coffins containing the bodies accross the border from Lebanon into Israel, where they will be identified.
“The Israeli cabinet agonised over it [the exchange] and voted in favour of it against the advice of the Israeli intelligence service … which thinks it will only encourage kidnappings”, said David Chater, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Israel.
“But the bulk of Israeli public opinion is behind this deal”, he added, reporting from Rosh Hanikra, the Israeli side of the border, where he said there was a strong military presence ahead of the exchange.
The release of Mr Kuntar (photo) was an “incredibly difficult decision” for Israel, said Miri Eisin, a former aide to Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister.
“Today in Israel we are mainly reflecting on the price we pay in our country to defend our borders”, she told Al Jazeera.
Seeing their son’s coffin displayed on television for the first time, the family of reservist Regev wept. A crowd of about 50 mourners gathered at the family home.
“Eldad! Eldad! What have they done to you?”, said Hana, Regev’s aunt.
On the contrary, in Lebanon’s Hezbollah-dominated south, there was a mood of celebration.
‘Tears of joy’
The streets in towns and villages across southern Lebanon, and along the coastal highway from Naqoura to Beirut, the capital, were decorated with yellow Hezbollah flags.
One poster read: “Israel is shedding tears of pain, Lebanon is shedding tears of joy.”
In honour of Imad Moughniyah (photo, from china.cn), the group’s military commander assassinated in Syria in February and known as “Hajj Radwan”, the exchange has been named Operation Radwan by the Hezbollah.
Earlier, Israel’s approval of the prisoner swap has been termed an admission of defeat by Sheik Nabil Kaouk, Hezbollah’s commander in south Lebanon.
“It’s regarded as being the final chapter of the 2006 war”, journalist Robert Fisk, a Middle East expert, told Al Jazeera.
“The Israelis certainly lost that war, they did not get their prisoners back – not until now and they’re getting them back dead. So more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians and more than 160 Israelis, most of them soldiers, all died for absolutely nothing and that’s what today’s prisoner exchanges prove.”
In order to celebrate the prisoner swap, a national holiday has been declared by Lebanon.
‘Victory for Arab resistance’
“This is a big day because it’s the day we [Lebanon] have the liberation of four or five heroes”, Wassim Manssouri, a professor in constitutional law at Beirut’s Lebanese University, told Al Jazeera from the capital.
In Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, celebrations were also under way.
“The exchange is seen as a victory for Arab resistance”, said Nour Odeh, Al Jazeera’s correspondent, in the West Bank.
Samir Kuntar is a member of Lebanon’s Druze population and Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon’s Druze leader, told Al Jazeera: “My father was the founder of a Lebanese-Palestinian coalition to fight Israel and recover the Palestinians’ rights. My father would be happy.”
“I am happy [too], but we should not forget the Palestinians who are detained in their own land”, he added.
As a result to the Hezbollah exchange, the public in Arab countries, like Jordan and Egypt, who both have signed peace deals with Israel, wonder why the bodies of their soldiers have not been repatriate by their governments.