Despite its usual policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists, Israel on Wednesday released five live Hezbollah prisoners in exchange for the return of two dead Jewish soldiers.
Reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were kidnapped near the Israeli-Lebanese border July 12, 2006, triggering a 34-day war. And Wednesday's swap, though supported by most Israelis and the captives' own families, is being criticized as a threat to the safety of individual soldiers as well as a setback in the quest for Mideast peace.
"This was a great Israeli failure because Israel gave in on everything which Hezbollah demanded,'' said Mordechai Kedar, an expert on Arab politics at Israel's Bar-Ilan University. "It means that if some terrorists would like to release their friends from our prisons, they will kidnap a soldier and kill him. Thus Israel puts in grave danger the lives of its own soldiers.''
And another expert predicts the swap will be perceived in the Arab world as a sign of Israeli weakness, thereby encouraging more Arab attacks that inevitably would be followed by Israeli reprisals.
"The tragedy is that escalation always costs the Arab side more than the Israeli side,'' said Abraham Diskin, former chairman of Hebrew University's political science department. "The intifada which was started at the end of 2000 was initiated by Palestinians, and the number of Palestinian casualties was three times as many as Israelis.''
But it is a bedrock of Israeli society that every soldier return home, and to that end there has been enormous public, media and family pressure on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government to negotiate the return of the two kidnapped soldiers.
"Everybody identifies with the suffering of the families,'' Diskin says, "because everybody has been in the army or the reserves or knows somebody in the army or reserves. It's very difficult on an emotional level to oppose the moves made by the government.''
Early hopes dashed
The feeling that Israel would do all it could to get back the abducted soldiers buoyed their relatives at the start of the 2006 war.
"We know he is alive and they (Hezbollah) will keep him alive because he's a card for them,'' Goldwasser's brother, Yair, told the St. Petersburg Times then. "He's a very mentally strong person, and he knew the government and whole country are behind him and will do anything to bring him back.''
At the time, Goldwasser had just turned 31, had been married 10 months and was working on a master's degree at Israel's top high-tech university. He had long since completed his mandatory army service, but was still obligated to do one month of reserve duty each year until age 40.
He was due to finish his one-month stint on the very day Hezbollah struck.
For months, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had been vowing to seize Jewish soldiers and swap them for prisoners held by Israel. Among them was Samir Kantar, serving a life term for a grisly 1979 attack in which he had shot to death an Israeli man and bashed in the skull of his 4-year-old daughter. Her mother accidentally smothered another daughter, 2, while trying to silence her crying as they hid.
Contrary to the families' hopes, there was strong evidence from the start that both Goldwasser and Regev, a 27-year-old law student, had died during the kidnapping or ensuing skirmish in which Hezbollah killed several other soldiers. In all, the war, seen as a psychological victory for Hezbollah, claimed about 1,200 Lebanese and 159 Israeli troops and civilians.
On Wednesday morning at a U.N. peacekeeping base on the Lebanese border, Hezbollah disclosed for the first time that the soldiers were dead and turned over two black coffins to the Red Cross. They were driven into Israel, where DNA testing confirmed that the badly decomposed bodies were those of the captured soldiers.
"It was a terrible thing to see, really terrible,'' Regev's father, Zvi, told Israel's Army Radio. "I was always optimistic and I hoped all the time that I would meet Eldad and hug him.''
Later, Samir and four other freed prisoners crossed into Lebanon to a hero's welcome. Israel also turned over the bodies of eight Hezbollah fighters killed in the 2006 war, and will release scores of prisoners later.
Despite criticisms of the practice, it was not the first prisoner swap nor is it apt to be the last. In 2004, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also drew fire when he exchanged more than 400 prisoners for an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three soldiers. And Israel is negotiating with Hamas for the release of Gilead Shalit, a solder captured near the Gaza Strip and thought to be alive.
The current swap is likely to be at least a short-term popularity boost for Sharon's successor, Olmert, whose political future is in peril because of corruption allegations. Though Olmert says he was motivated by humanitarian concerns, critics are skeptical.
"Olmert is interested in only one thing — Olmert,'' said Kedar of Bar-Ilan University. "He's trying to get media sympathy while dealing with his problems with the law and corruption.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.