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Israelis uneasy over prisoner release

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

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff Writer, Correspondent / July 17, 2008

Aftermath: Israelis lit candles for soldier Eldad Regev.

Amir Cohen/Reuters

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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.

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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.

"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.