NAQURA, July 16 – Hezbollah handed over two coffins it said contained the remains of two Israeli soldiers captured two years ago, at the start of a prisoner swap with Israel on Wednesday.
Two black coffins were seen after Hezbollah official Wafiq Safa announced the beginning of the exchange at the Naqura border crossing between Israel and Lebanon.
The mood in Israel has been sombre as it waited to discover the fate of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, whose capture by Hezbollah guerrillas in July 2006 triggered a devastating 34-day war in Lebanon.
The bodies were handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross and DNA tests are to be carried out to confirm the identities of the two soldiers before the Lebanese fighters are handed over.
"Coming Home," was the stark headline in Yediot Aharanot newspaper.
But in Lebanon, celebratory banners and flags are flying along the main coastal highway from Naqura to Lebanon’s southern port city of Sidon and the cabinet has declared Wednesday a national holiday.
Among those being exchanged is Samir Kantar, a Lebanese Druze who was sentenced to five life terms for a 1979 triple murder that shocked Israel to the core and is the longest-serving Arab prisoner in Israel.
Four Hezbollah fighters captured in the July-August 2006 war which killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon and 160 in Israel, Khaled Zidan, Maher Kurani, Mohammed Sarur and Hussein Suleiman, are also to walk free.
Some in Israel are asking whether the nation is paying too high a price for the return of its soldiers, saying the swap risks bolstering its arch-foes in the region.
In return for its two soldiers, Israeli is to transfer to Lebanon the remains of 199 Palestinian and Hezbollah fighters exhumed over the past week.
The UN-brokered swap, which was given final approval by the Israeli cabinet on Tuesday, is the eighth between Israel and the fundamentalist Shiite movement Hezbollah since 1991.
Israel’s Jerusalem Post newspaper has billed the festivities in Lebanon, where the released men are to be flown to Beirut to be greeted by President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, as "a celebration of evil."
The International Committee of the Red Cross, using trucks ferried in from Jordan, was organising the exchange, after an accord sealed by a UN-appointed German mediator following months of tough negotiations.
Kantar and the four Hezbollah fighters are being transferred to the border from a prison north of Tel Aviv, an Israeli prison service spokesman said, while trucks carrying the exhumed bodies of the Lebanese and Palestinians were at the crossing.
Until Wednesday, Hezbollah, which is backed by Tehran and Damascus, had never disclosed the fate of Goldwasser and Regev, although Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said they were dead.
The army was preparing for military funerals on Thursday in their home villages.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah is to give a speech in Beirut’s southern suburbs to hail his group’s success in emptying Israeli jails of Lebanese prisoners.
Shlomo Goldwasser, the father of Ehud, blasted the hero’s welcome being prepared in Lebanon for Kantar.
“The Lebanese people sacrificed almost 800 soldiers, its entire economy. For what? For the killer of a three-year-old girl? Is that a hero? For me he is nothing more than a little bigot."
Israeli President Shimon Peres on Tuesday pardoned the five Lebanese, saying it was "not a happy day for having to free such murderers but we have a moral responsibility to bring our soldiers home."
The cabinet first approved the swap in June, but was asked to endorse it again after Israel received a Hezbollah report on missing airman Ron Arad, whose fate has long been a cause celebre in the Jewish state.
Arad has been missing since his plane was shot down over Lebanon in October 1986 during the civil war, and although the report said he was probably dead, Israel has rejected its findings.