NAHARIYA, Israel, (Reuters) – Israel held funerals for two slain soldiers on Thursday returned in a prisoner swap with Hezbollah, highlighting a sombre mood that contrasted with celebrations in Lebanon for guerrillas freed in the deal.
Thousands attended a funeral in the northern Israeli town of Nahariya, broadcast live on television, for Ehud Goldwasser, 31, whose capture two years ago along with Eldad Regev sparked a 34-day war in which 1,200 Lebanese and 159 Israelis died.
Regev will be buried later on Thursday.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak said at Goldwasser’s gravesite Israel was “heartbroken” and had “paid a heavy price” by freeing five guerrillas involved in lethal attacks against Israelis in exchange for the bodies, which were returned in black coffins. He vowed Israel would “make every effort” to retrieve other captive soldiers, including Gilat Shalit, who was abducted by militants from the Gaza Strip in a 2006 cross-border raid.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday singled out for criticism the honours that went to Samir Qantar, reviled by Israel for a 1979 attack that killed four, in Beirut. “Woe betide the people who celebrate the release of a beastly man who bludgeoned the skull of a 4-year-old toddler,” Olmert said in a statement, referring to the girl Qantar killed with her father.
Qantar has said Israeli soldiers shot the father and also wounded him and that he does not remember what happened to the girl.
Hezbollah leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah made a rare public appearance to welcome the prisoners on Wednesday. More celebrations were held on Thursday to honour the remains of 197 Lebanese, including guerrillas and other Arab fighters, handed over by Israel.
Most news headlines in Israel reflected a bitterness that has shaken the Jewish state since Hezbollah handed over the soldiers’ remains in black coffins at a northern border crossing on Wednesday. Radio stations played melancholy music. “A more undignified and morally offensive spectacle is hard to imagine,” English-language newspaper the Jerusalem Post wrote in an editorial of the festivities in Lebanon.
The Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, quoting a senior Israeli source, said Israel now regarded Qantar as “worthy of death.” “Israel will find him and kill him,” the source said.
Despite Israeli military assessments that both soldiers had been seriously wounded in the cross-border Hezbollah raid, the Shi’ite group’s silence on their condition had spurred some hope they may have survived. “I just can’t believe it. Udi, we thought it would be otherwise, we hoped you would return home,” Daniella Avni, mother of Goldwasser’s widow, Karnit, said before his burial in his home town of Nahariya.
Some Israeli commentators renewed criticism of the 2006 war. “What a tragic end,” correspondent Amir Rappaport wrote in the Maariv daily newspaper. “A lesson has been learned: Battles with the enemy should be waged through negotiation.”