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Israel Releases 5 Lebanese Militants After Hezbollah Returns 2 Israeli Soldiers' Bodies

STEVEN GUTKIN and ARON HELLER | July 16, 2008 05:31 PM EST | AP

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Hezbollah members hand over the bodies of two Israeli soldiers to the Red Cross to be exchanged for Lebanese prisoners held by Israel at Naqoura border point with Israel, Wednesday July 16, 2008. Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas handed over the bodies of two Israeli soldiers and trucks carrying the remains of some 199 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters began crossing into Lebanon on Wednesday _ setting in motion a dramatic prisoner swap between the bitter enemies. Family and friends outside the homes of the two captured Israeli soldiers burst into tears early Wednesday when TV images showed two black coffins believed to contain their remains. Though officials had suspected Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were dead, the sight of the coffins was the first concrete sign of the young men's fate. (AP Photo/Issam Kobeisy/Pool)

JERUSALEM — Critics of Israel's lopsided prisoner exchange with Lebanese guerrillas said Wednesday that such deals only encourage more hostage-taking _ a fear underscored by Gaza militants who said the swap proves that kidnapping is the only language Israel understands.

The deal, in which a notorious Lebanese attacker, four other militants and the bodies of 199 Arab fighters were traded for two dead Israeli soldiers, closed a painful chapter from Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon.

But it also raised questions about whether Israel should reconsider its policy of bringing back every soldier from the battlefield at just about any cost.

Israel has been carrying out unequal prisoner swaps for decades, including handing over 4,600 Palestinian and Lebanese captives in 1983 in exchange for six captured Israeli soldiers. In the past it's even traded live prisoners for bodies, as it did Wednesday.

The rationale for such trades was a wartime ethic seen as essential in Israel's early days to instilling loyalty and commitment from its troops.

In today's world of asymmetric warfare _ with militant groups increasingly focused on kidnapping as a way to pressure Israel and with the fight against terrorism now a worldwide challenge _ the lopsided swaps could have graver consequences than in the past.

"What we've done now has made kidnapping soldiers the most profitable game in town," said Israeli security expert Martin Sherman.

"There is absolutely no reason why Hezbollah should not invest huge resources now, along with Hamas, in the next kidnapping."

The issue is of immediate concern because the government is deeply involved in indirect negotiations to free its other captive soldier, Gilad Schalit, held by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. Unlike Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the two soldiers whose bodies were returned Wednesday, Schalit is believed to be alive.

Following this week's Cabinet vote that cleared the way for the Hezbollah deal, Construction Minister Zeev Boim, one of only three ministers to vote against it, said he was afraid the swap would make it harder for Israel to win the release of Schalit.

"No one should be surprised if Hamas will now raise the price for freeing him," he said.

Hamas made it clear Wednesday that it intended to do just that.

"As there was an honorable exchange today, we are determined to have an honorable exchange for our own prisoners" held in Israeli jails, Gaza's Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said. "Let them answer our demands." Israel holds about 10,000 Palestinians in prison.

Haniyeh's spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri went further, saying the swap "shows that the only successful way to free the prisoners is by kidnapping soldiers."

Explaining his opposition, Boim, the construction minister, said Wednesday: "We needed, in my opinion, to take this opportunity to change the rules we were dragged into many years ago, which have led to many lopsided deals."

But the Israeli military said the deal drove home the Jewish state's deep commitment to its soldiers.

"This painful process exemplifies Israel's moral commitment to secure the return of all of their soldiers sent out on operational missions," said a statement Wednesday from the Israeli Defense Forces. "It demonstrates a compelling moral strength which stems from Judaism, Israeli societal values and from the spirit of the IDF."

Wednesday's exchange involved freeing a Lebanese militant convicted of what many consider to be among the most gruesome crimes inflicted on Israelis in their history.

Samir Kantar was sentenced to three life terms for killing an Israeli man in front of his 4-year-old daughter, then killing the little girl by smashing her skull with his rifle butt.

During the grisly attack, the girl's 2-year-old sister was accidentally smothered by her mother during a desperate attempt to silence the child's cries as the two hid in a crawl space.

For Israelis, the 1979 attack was a nightmare scenario feared by many in a nation living in a constant state of war: a terrorist breaking into their home in the middle of the night and kidnapping and killing a family.

Because of the visceral reaction, successive governments held off on including Kantar in any previous swap. Kantar was 16 years old at the time of the attack and he has consistently denied killing the girl, saying she died in crossfire.

That Israel paid such a high price for dead bodies could provide an incentive for militants to kill future hostages, said Yuval Steinitz, a lawmaker from the opposition Likud Party.

"This is a very dangerous precedent," he said. "We are telling them that they don't have to do their utmost to keep captive soldiers alive, to save them if captured."

Nor was the high price of the swap lost on ordinary Palestinians.

"Nobody would have expected that Israel would give up the likes of Samir Kantar. Hezbollah has shown that they are mighty people, and Israel is afraid of them and had to meet their demands," said Samar Mohammed, a 23-year-old architect in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Despite the criticism in Israel, the swap could provide a badly needed boost for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose grip on power is gravely threatened by a burgeoning corruption probe.

Olmert launched a monthlong war against Hezbollah in June 2006 in response to the servicemen's capture. His handling of the war was widely criticized, and he has been under considerable pressure to resolve the issue of the soldiers' fate.

Wednesday's swap closed a painful chapter from the war, and Israelis reacted to confirmation of the young men's death with a mixture of anguish and anger.

One of the soldiers' aunts sank to the ground in despair, and other mourners demanded revenge, chanting "Nasrallah, you will pay" _ referring to Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.

Olmert recently announced the soldiers were believed dead, but there was no proof until their remains were delivered to Israel in two black coffins Wednesday. During the past two years, securing Regev's and Goldwasser's release had become a national crusade involving bumper stickers, billboards, radio and TV spots and public prayers.

Family and friends outside the homes of the fallen soldiers burst into tears at the first television images of the black coffins.

"It was horrible to see it. I didn't want to, I asked them to turn off the TV," said Regev's father, Zvi, choking back tears. "We were always hoping that Udi (Ehud) and Eldad were alive and that they would come home and we would hug them."

Gerald Steinberg, chairman of the political science department at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, disagreed with the notion that Hezbollah came out ahead in both the war and the prisoner swap.

"Hezbollah paid a high price," he said. "After the soldiers were kidnapped, Israel went to war and inflicted a very high cost on Hezbollah. It would be irrational for Hezbollah to return to a similar tactic."

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AP correspondent Aron Heller reported from the Israel-Lebanon border. AP writers Mark Lavie, Steve Weizman and Laurie Copans in Jerusalem, Ian Deitch in northern Israel and Dalia Nammari in Ramallah also contributed to this report.

Filed by Nick Graham  |  Report Corrections