Ulrike Putz And Holger Stark
Der Spiegel
July 16, 2008 - 3:14pm

The hopes had been high. Just a day earlier, Shlomo Goldwasser, the father of the Israeli soldier Ehud Goldwasser, had held out the possibility that his son, abducted by Hezbollah on the Lebanese border two years ago, might still be alive.

But on Wednesday, when Hezbollah fulfilled its part of the much anticipated prisoner exchange involving Goldwasser and the other Israeli soldier abducted in the 2006 raid Eldad Regev, the Islamist extremists were only able to hand over two black coffins.

Immediately, Israeli forensic experts went to work identifying the bodies, to make sure that they did indeed belong to Goldwasser and Regev. Once the identity of the remains is confirmed, Israel will hand over five Lebanese prisoners, including Samir Kantar, who brutally murdered a man and his daughter in a 1979 attack. He has been in jail in Israel since then.

The families of both Goldwasser and Regev had done their best to stay optimistic even as all signs tended to point toward their no longer being alive. Hezbollah had withheld all information on the well-being of the soldiers, but evidence from the scenes of their captures indicated that each had been badly wounded. Now, finally, the waiting is over for their families.

"It's the saddest day for Israel. They kept us waiting until the last second to learn the fate of our sons," Sinoma Adda, a neighbor of the Regev family, told the Associated Press before bursting into tears.

The exchange had been in the works for weeks, with the Israel cabinet finally giving the go ahead on Tuesday afternoon. Eli Yishai, a deputy of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, praised the deal because it comes "at a much lower price than what we had to pay in the past, with all the pain involved in it." As recently as 2004, Israel handed over 400 Lebanese and Palestinians in a prisoner exchange.

Still, Hezbollah was celebrating the swap as a victory. According to a Web site close to Hezbollah, the freed prisoners were to be dressed in military uniforms as soon as they were handed over. The idea is to remind people that the men are fighters, the Web site reported, and that they will resume their positions on the "front of resistance."

"Today is a great victory for the resistance movements and for Hezbollah," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. "It shows that the only successful way to free the prisoners is by kidnapping soldiers." Hezbollah supporters set up a stage in the coastal town of Naqoura, with a brass band waiting to celebrate the return of the prisoners.

The deal was mediated by a member of Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND). Gerhard C. undertook months of delicate diplomacy, travelling back and forth between Jerusalem, Beirut, Berlin and the UN headquarters in New York.

But even right up until the end, the deal was never a sure thing. The government of Prime Minister Olmert, himself tarnished by numerous corruption allegations, was under immense domestic pressure not to come to an agreement. Israelis have doubts about a deal that gives the Shiite militia, currently internationally isolated, some measure of legitimacy.

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the powerful leader of Hezbollah, was the one who gave his approval for a militia to ambush an Israeli border control on July 12, 2006 -- a move that sparked the so-called summer war between Israel and Hezbollah. Immediately after the kidnappings, Olmert ordered an attack on the extremist group in Lebanon in order to force the release of Regev and Goldwasser. The Israeli Air Force bombarded southern Beirut and carried the war to the villages and small towns of southern Lebanon. However, the two soldiers remained missing and Hezbollah was undefeated after 34 days of combat.

Many parts of Lebanon have still not recovered from those aerial bombardments and the local population still suffers. Nasrallah, though, who has lived underground since the beginning of the war, emerged from the fight as a hero, seen as the first Arab in decades who was able to militarily defy the hated Israelis. The success in that war, which Hezbollah sees as a divine victory, greatly increased Nasrallah's position of power.

The successful prisoner exchange could convince those last few doubters in Lebanon that the armed struggle against Israel is justified. The release of Kantar has drawn particular attention. In the middle of the night on April 22, 1979, Kantar and three others landed on the Israeli coast in a rubber dinghy near the village of Nahariya. They killed a policeman before storming into the apartment of Danny Haran. Kantar took him and his four-year-old daughter out onto the beach and killed them both. Haran's wife Smadar hid in the apartment with the couple's two-year-old daughter. Smadar accidentally suffocated the child while trying to keep her from screaming.

But as hated as Kantar is in Israel, he is seen as a hero by many in Lebanon -- and his release now lends Nasrallah yet more authority. "I have complete trust in Nasrallah," Kantar's brother Bassam has often declared.

Even better for Nasrallah, he hasn't had to do all that much to bring about the prisoner exchange. An important aspect of the deal is a classified report that Hezbollah handed to BND man Gerhard C. that was intended to provide details about the fate of a further Israeli soldier -- Ron Arad. The fighter pilot, who bailed out of his plane while bombing Lebanon in 1986, has become an icon in Israel of the fight against Hezbollah. The circumstances and timing of his death still haven't been cleared up. Uncovering the truth about the precise circumstances of his demise has become a priority for the Israeli government, and the Hezbollah report was expected to help heal a festering Israeli wound.

But the convoluted report Nasrallah's mediators handed to the BND negotiator close to two weeks ago doesn't even deserve the title "intelligence." Over the course of several dozen pages, the Hezbollah report explains that Arad was still alive at the beginning, but that he was moved around several times and turned over to various Arab militias until, at some point, they lost track of him. Hezbollah extensively details its efforts to locate his corpse -- including an attempt, with the help of the BND and technical sensors, to locate his remains in the desert. But the report does not answer the when, where and how of his death.

"The report is completely inadequate," Olmert complained on Monday. Gehard C., the BND negotiator, has since handed the Shiites an additional list of questions. He is still awaiting a response, and it's doubtful the answers to those questions will provide clarity on Arad's death.

That Olmert and his cabinet still agreed to the deal on Tuesday was largely attributable to the government's weakness domestically. For months, the prime minister has been plagued by corruption investigations, and not a single week goes by in which the Goldwasser and Regev families don't demand that the government negotiate. Their fight to get their sons back has also found resonance and sympathy across the country. The public was also outraged that, for a long time, Olmert withheld information from the families.

Now, the truth is no longer a mystery. A large framed picture of Eldad Regev hung at his father's home in the coastal town of Kiryat Motzkin. A sign on the image read, "Eldad, we haven't forgotten and we're waiting for the day you return home."

On Wednesday, both he and Goldwasser did.


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