JERUSALEM — Two black caskets, laid out by Hezbollah officials on the sun-drenched tarmac of a Lebanese border crossing, unceremoniously put to rest one of Israel’s most wrenching hostage ordeals.
The bodies of Israeli reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev returned home for burial Wednesday, two years and four days after they were seized in the Hezbollah cross-border attack that triggered the 2006 Lebanon war.
Until the last moment, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia refused to give any word on whether the Israeli soldiers were dead or alive, even as the group hammered out a prisoner swap deal with Israel through a U.N.-appointed German mediator.
Live footage of the coffins being delivered to the Red Cross at Rosh Hanikra border crossing — under a Hezbollah banner that read "Israel sheds tears of pain, Lebanon sheds tears of joy" – brought the painful news home.
At the homes of Goldwasser and Regev families, crowds of well-wishers wept and cried in outrage. An elderly woman fainted. Dazed-looking children lit memorial candles.
"It was a terrible thing to see, really terrible," Eldad’s father, Zvi, told Army Radio. “I was always optimistic, and I hoped all the time that I would meet Eldad and hug him.”
Interviewed separately from an army base where the soldiers’ families were sequestered while the military rabbinate identified the bodies, Goldwasser’s father, Shlomo, voiced resignation.
"This was not much of a surprise," he told Israel Radio, alluding to an earlier announcement by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that the captives should be assumed dead. "But confronting reality is always difficult."
Under the swap deal, Hezbollah received four of its fighters who were captured in the 2006 war, as well as Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese Druse convicted in Israel for infiltrating across the border in 1979 and murdering four Israelis, including a 4-year-old girl and her father.
In the deal, Israel also repatriated the bodies of 199 Arabs who had died trying to infiltrate across the northern border over the decades. Hezbollah was to hand over remains of other Israeli soldiers killed in Lebanon.
Kuntar, reviled in Israel, has become a cause celebre for Hezbollah, which called him an "Arab holy warrior.” Now Hebrew-fluent and equipped with a correspondence-course degree from an Israeli university, Kuntar was reported to be considering a job as a Hezbollah spokesman.
"When he took this action, the Hezbollah organization didn’t even exist," said Brig.-Gen. Avi Beniyahu, Israel’s chief military spokesman. "To those who plan to dress him up in Hezbollah clothes and hold a victory procession with him in Lebanon, I say: Woe betide the nation that has no heroes."
Mark Regev, a spokesman for the prime minister, condemned the celebrations. "Samir Kantar is a brutal murderer of children and anybody celebrating him as a hero is trampling on basic human decency," he said.
Olmert was expected to withhold comment until Israel could carry out full forensic examines to confirm the bodies’ identities.
While many Israelis have condemned the asymmetric swap, on Wednesday some pundits commended the Olmert government for not giving in to Hezbollah’s initial demand for the deal to include the release of hundreds of jailed Arab terrorists.
"In all decency, it has to be admitted that this morning’s deal is one of the ‘cheapest’ in the history of the State of Israel, almost the ‘best’ of them," former Yitzhak Rabin aide Eitan Cabel wrote in Israel’s daily Yediot Acharonot. "We are depressed because it seems to us that, yet again, Hezbollah has made a laughing stock of us — but this is not the truth."
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who has emerged from hiding only rarely since the 2006 war, which he dubs a "divine victory" for radical Islam, was expected to deliver an address in Beirut on Wednesday.
According to some reports, Hezbollah also planned to release video footage of the ambush in which Goldwasser and Regev were seized and eight of their comrades killed outright.
Hezbollah named the prisoner swap "Operation Radwan" — the nom-de-guerre of Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah mastermind who planned the abductions and was assassinated in Damascus in February by unknown assailants.
With Kuntar free, Hezbollah may try to avenge Mughniyeh with major terrorist attacks on Israel, sources in Jerusalem warned.
In Gaza and the West Bank, the prisoner swap was welcomed.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly offered his congratulations to Kuntar’s family and offered his condolences to the families of the Lebanese who received their loved ones’ remains in the deal.
In Gaza, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, the one-time P.A. prime minister, congratulated Hezbollah and Kuntar for "the great victory of the resistance, which proved the rightness of our way."
The focus in Israel likely will turn now to the Israeli soldier taken captive by Hamas in 2006, Gilad Shalit. Shalit, who survived the cross-border raid that resulted in his capture, has been permitted to send several messages to his family. Palestinians have demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for his return.