ROSH HANIKRA, Israel (AP) – Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas handed over two black coffins Wednesday containing the bodies of two Israeli soldiers and Israel set free the perpetrator of one of the grisliest attacks in its history, part of a dramatic prisoner swap that promised to boost the radical Islamic militia and close a painful chapter from Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon.
Lebanese militant Samir Kantar and four other prisoners crossed into a buffer zone between Lebanon and Israel. The Lebanese were driven on vehicles to the zone, and then drove into Lebanon proper in a Red Cross van.
Family and friends outside the homes of the two captured Israeli soldiers burst into tears early Wednesday when TV images showed Hezbollah guerrillas taking the coffins out of a black GMC van. Though officials had suspected Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were dead, the sight of the coffins was the first concrete sign of their fate.
The day was fraught with tension and tears in Israel, a sharp contrast to the hero’s welcome that awaited Kantar in the homeland he left 29 years ago to set out on his deadly mission.
The swap, mediated by a U.N.-appointed German official who shuttled between the sides for 18 months, is likely to provide a significant boost to Hezbollah, which is trying to rebuild a reputation tarnished when it turned its guns on fellow Lebanese in May.
It also provides a wrenching end to the war for Israel, which launched the fighting in response to the servicemen’s capture. The campaign to bring them home had become a national crusade, and Israelis were glued to their televisions and radios Wednesday following every detail of the swap.
Lebanon’s Al-Manar TV quoted senior Hezbollah official Wafik Safa at the border as saying the soldiers’ bodies were in a “mutilated” shape from injuries they suffered during the July 12, 2006, raid.
Israeli forensic experts examined the remains for several hours, checking dental records among other things, before confirming the soldiers’ identities. Israeli generals then went to the families’ homes to deliver the news.
The confirmation set the stage for Israel to release Kantar and four other Lebanese prisoners to Hezbollah. “The military bows its head and lowers its flags and warmly embraces the families, remembering its fighters who fell and were held by the enemy for two years,” Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, the chief military spokesman, said at the Rosh Hanikra border crossing.
The two soldiers, who were promoted posthumously, are to be buried on Thursday, he said.
The soldiers’ Hezbollah captors had withheld any information about them since they were taken, refusing to release pictures or allow the Red Cross to see them. It was not clear if Regev and Goldwasser were killed in the original raid or if they died in captivity.
Goldwasser’s newlywed wife, Karnit, had traveled the globe over the past two years, meeting with world leaders in a tireless campaign to bring the soldiers home. She and her father, Omri Avni, were at his parents’ house when the family was notified.
“After two difficult years, this was the most difficult moment,” he said. “Karnit vowed to bring Udi home. Now that this mission has been accomplished, a storm of emotions has erupted. … We are in a difficult state.”
Goldwasser’s father, Shlomo, said earlier in the day that the sight of the coffins on TV “was not easy to see, though it didn’t come as much of a surprise.” “But coming face-to-face with reality is always tough,” he told Israel Radio.
Regev’s father, Zvi, said he fell apart the moment he saw Hezbollah take the coffins out of a van and place them on the ground. “It was horrible to see it,” he said, choking back tears. “We were always hoping that Udi and Eldad were alive and that they would come home and we would hug them.”
An aunt of Regev’s collapsed at the TV footage of the coffins. Some 50 friends, neighbors and family who had gathered outside Zvi Regev’s house sobbed, rocked back and forth in prayer, lit candles or tugged at their hair. “Nasrallah, you will pay,” several of the mourners vowed, referring to Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
Other people in the crowd criticized Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, saying the soldiers died for nothing.
A large, framed photograph of Regev hung at the entrance to his father’s house. On the upper left hand side appeared the message, “Eldad, we haven’t forgotten, and we’re waiting for the day you return home.”
Although polls show Israelis solidly endorse the exchange, many see Kantar as the embodiment of evil.
In the dead of night on April 22, 1979, Kantar and three other gunmen made their way in a rubber dinghy from Lebanon to the sleepy Israeli coastal town of Nahariya, 5 miles (8 kilometers) south of the Lebanese border. There, in a hail of gunfire and exploding grenades, they killed a policeman who stumbled upon them, then burst into the apartment of Danny Haran, herding him and his 4-year-old daughter out of the house at gunpoint to the beach below, where they were killed.
The attack is seared in Israel’s collective consciousness as being especially gruesome because an Israeli court found that Kantar shot Danny Haran in front of his child, then killed her by hitting her head with his rifle butt.
Haran’s wife, Smadar, who had fled into a crawl space in the family apartment with her 2-year-old daughter, accidentally smothered the child with her hand while trying to stifle her cries.
Kantar, who acted on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Front, a small faction of the PLO, denies killing the older child and has never expressed remorse for the incident. He said the girl was killed in the crossfire as he battled Israeli police. He was 16 at the time.
Two members of his squad were killed in the raid, and the third, taken alive, was released in a 1985 prisoner swap.
Israel held on to Kantar for decades, hoping to use him as a bargaining chip to win new information about an Israeli airman whose plane crashed in Lebanon in 1986. But despite dissatisfaction over Hezbollah’s report on the aviator, provided over the weekend, and under pressure from the captured soldiers’ families to bring them home, Israel’s Cabinet voted on Tuesday to release Kantar. The sorrow that swept across Israel with the images of the coffins contrasted sharply with the festive preparations for the return of Kantar and the four other Lebanese prisoners.
Hezbollah supporters set up a makeshift stage in the coastal town of Naqoura, where a brass band awaited the returning prisoners. On the platform stood a large photograph of a weeping Israeli woman. A nearby sign read, “Israel is shedding tears of pain.” “Lebanon is shedding tears of joy,” read another.
A giant red carpet was rolled out along a road in front of the stage, next to dozens of yellow Hezbollah flags whipping in the breeze.
An official ceremony was planned at Beirut Airport with Lebanon’s president, prime minister and parliament speaker attending. Later, Nasrallah planned to address a huge celebration at Hezbollah’s stronghold south of Beirut.
Winning freedom for Kantar was one of the reasons Nasrallah cited at the time for going to war with Israel in 2006.
The exchange is a somber occasion in Israel, where no ceremonies are planned.
In the Gaza Strip, controlled by the violently anti-Israel Hamas group, people handed out sweets to celebrate Kantar’s impending release.
Ismail Haniyeh, Gaza’s Hamas prime minister, called Kantar an “Arab nationalist hero.” He warned Israel that it would also have to “pay the price” for a soldier Hamas has been holding since June 2006 and presumed alive. “There is a captive Israeli soldier, and thousands of our sons are in prison,” Haniyeh said. “Let them answer our demands.”
Israeli critics have said that by trading bodies for prisoners, Israel is giving militants little incentive to keep captured soldiers alive. The critics charge that such lopsided swaps only encourage more hostage-taking by militants.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, speaking in Germany, said he hoped Wednesday’s prisoner swap would pave the way for a deal releasing Schalit and Palestinian prisoners. In addition to the five prisoners, Israel was releasing the bodies of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters killed in clashes over the years. This would not be the first time that Israel has paid a high price to return its troops. On several occasions, it released hundreds or thousands of prisoners in exchange for small numbers of Israeli soldiers, some of them dead.