Israelis uneasy over prisoner release

Critics say the deal, which they see as lopsided, could embolden Hezbollah.

By , Staff Writer , Correspondent

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    Aftermath: Israelis lit candles for soldier Eldad Regev.
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    Eldad Regev's remains were returned by Hezbollah in a swap for prisoners including Samir Kantar (c.), who launched a deadly 1979 attack.
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    Border: Israeli grocer Gabi Abotbul shows damage from an attack two years ago.
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    Israel handed over prisoners Wednesday.
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Israel received two black coffins on Wednesday containing the remains of the soldiers abducted in a Hezbollah raid at Israel's northern border two summers ago – a surprise attack whose aftereffects are still reverberating.

The long-awaited prisoner exchange, far from closing a chapter that included a 34-day war and raising hopes for peace, instead has Israel grieving over its losses and watching for further military maneuvers by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Moreover, the inherent disparity of the deal has sparked concerns that it will embolden Hezbollah, Hamas, and other foes of Israel to kidnap soldiers and civilians, knowing that they can extract large concessions. Israel agreed to receive the soldiers dead or alive in exchange for the remains of 200 Lebanese as well as the release of five Lebanese prisoners, including Samir Kuntar, who was convicted of murdering an Israeli father and child in Nahariya nearly 30 years ago.

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"Anyone that kidnaps an Israeli will now know that Israel is willing to pay an extremely high price, totally out of proportion with what the other side will pay," says Danny Yatom, former head of Mossad, the intelligence agency.

The vendetta between Israel and Hezbollah, a Shiite militia based in south Lebanon, seems far from abating. In February, Hezbollah mastermind Imad Mughniyah was assassinated, presumably by Israel. He was the author of many deadly attacks on Israelis and Americans, and is reported to have orchestrated the July 2006 raid that led to the abduction of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, the Israeli soldiers who Hezbollah officials said, until the last moment, might still be alive. Hezbollah dedicated the exchange deal to Mughniyah's memory, and Israeli intelligence estimates that after the swap, Hezbollah may launch attacks, in Israel or elsewhere, to avenge his assassination.

Israel also still occupies Shebaa Farms, a disputed territory between Israel, the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, and Lebanon. Hezbollah leaders have said that they must continue resistance to Israel until they retrieve the territory.

"[In] the long run, the concerns are that Hezbollah feels itself a victor," says Yitzhak Reiter, a professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"The swap of prisoners is a strong indicator that, at the end of the day, Hezbollah achieved its goal: to release Samir Kuntar and to gain more power in Lebanon because of its violent engagement with Israel," he says.

But, he adds, "will this bring Hezbollah back to the battlefield with Israel? I think this is unlikely to happen."

He notes that Hezbollah must take into account Lebanon's political scene: namely, that further warfare would destroy infrastructure and harm innocent civilians, undermining public patience.

"We also see a change with Syria, in that Syria is more interested in being part of the consensus and engaging in Europe," Mr. Reiter says. "Syria will put some breaks on if Hezbollah tries to move, and it has a vested interest in avoiding an escalation of the situation. "

Nonetheless, the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] have gone on high alert. The IDF's Northern Command has made it clear that tensions are high, and troops have been told to expect a flare-up. Defense officials have also been charging that Hezbollah has been rebuilding its military infrastructure in southern Lebanon. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Monday that UN Resolution 1701, which brought the 2006 conflict to an end, was "a failure," and struck a different tone on Syria.

"Hezbollah continues to get stronger, thanks to the ongoing help of Syria," Mr. Barak said. "We should be saying clearly: Resolution 1701 has not worked, is not working, and will not work."

One Israeli expert on Lebanon and Syria, Tel Aviv University's Eyal Zisser, says a wild card is the perception in Lebanon of the weakness of the Israeli government, given the ongoing troubles of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who will be replaced as party leader in September.

"For the last two years, the border was quiet, and we ask ourselves constantly, for how long? It is in Hezbollah's interest to resume its operations along the border. It's waiting for an opportunity, and I don't think this is it," he says. "But because of the weakness of the Israeli government ... they might come to a conclusion that the government ... will not retaliate, and this could lead to escalation."

In the northern town of Nahariya, Gabi Abotbul found himself trapped in his store's bathroom when the building was hit by a rocket two years ago. He doesn't see the swap as promoting closure.

"Tomorrow, if they wanted, they could fire," he says. "Hezbollah calls all of the shots [in Lebanon]. Sooner or later they will try to do something. It's only a matter of time. It might sound ridiculous, but we need to go into [Lebanon] with all our might and uproot them completely."

Nahariya was "put on the map" by the traumas of 2006 and of 1979. Two years ago, Katyusha rockets rained down on the town for more than a month. The house of the family of Ehud Goldwasser, one of the soldiers whose remains were returned Wednesday, is near the building where Danny Haran and his four-year-old daughter were abducted and killed by Mr. Kuntar in 1979. A policeman and Haran's other daughter died in the attack as well. Kuntar's release convoy was routed around the city.

"People are tense,'' says Rotem Kabessa, a young journalist who grew up hearing stories about the attack. "They are not happy Kuntar is being released."

Yosi Tsachor was the commanding officer of the army's home front command in Nahariya when the town was infiltrated by Kuntar and other militants. As he pursued Kuntar, Kuntar wounded Mr. Tsachor with three bullets.

Wednesday, he listened to news updates while showing a visitor shrapnel that fell in his yard two years ago. "Hezbollah is stronger than before the war. And I don't see any closing of the circle," he says. "If you ask, will there be quiet, in my opinion, no. If there are 40 days of quiet, I'm happy."

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