Despite delays, prisoner swap leaves Hezbollah emboldened
In Lebanon, hundreds waited for five prisoners, who were treated as returning heroes.
Hundreds of jubilant Lebanese endured hours of blazing heat in the coastal village of Naqoura Wednesday to welcome home five detainees released by Israel in a prisoner exchange that Hezbollah, Lebanon's militant Shiite group, is hailing as a new "victory" over the Jewish state.Skip to next paragraph
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The five prisoners included Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese Druze who served 30 years in an Israeli prison for his role in a deadly 1978 raid that left a policeman and three Israeli family members dead in northern Israel. The other four prisoners were Hezbollah fighters captured in the month-long war with Israel in 2006.
Hezbollah returned the remains of two Israeli soldiers abducted two years ago in an act that triggered Israel's 34-day war with Lebanon.
The swap was scheduled to take place at 9 a.m., but eight hours later the five Lebanese prisoners were still on the Israeli side of the border and only the remains of 12 Arab guerrilla fighters had been transferred into Hezbollah's custody.
That exchange recalled a history of Arab-Israeli enmity.
Seven of the 12 were Hezbollah fighters killed in the 2006 war. The other five were Palestinian guerrillas killed during a raid in northern Israel in 1978, an operation that triggered Israel's first invasion of Lebanon, an occupation that lasted 22 years, and gave birth to Hezbollah.
The reception for the five former prisoners was scheduled to take place on the coastal road near the small harbor in Naqoura, 1-1/2 miles north of the border. Hezbollah constructed a small grandstand and seating for officials, families, and press.
Hezbollah men, some wearing black military garb, others dressed in camouflage uniforms, lined the road. Party officials wearing black suits, open-neck shirts, and clutching walkie-talkies energetically marshaled their supporters.
A banner strung above the grandstand juxtaposed pictures of a crying Israeli soldier and child and one of Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, with his head in his hands, with pictures of a jubilant Lebanese crowd brandishing yellow Hezbollah flags and a smiling Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the party's leader. The banner read in English: "Israel is shedding tears of pain, Lebanon is shedding tears of joy. Freedom guaranteed by Nasrallah, humiliation guaranteed by Olmert."
"This is a more important day than the victory over Israel two years ago," says Qassem Atwi, a fisherman from Naqoura. "This proves to us that the prisoners would never have been released if it was not for the resistance. The enemy only understands the logic of force."
The Ismael family from Ras al-Ain village, 10 miles north of Naqoura, had been waiting since 5 a.m., sitting patiently on the side of the road. "This is only the beginning today. We still have the Shebaa Farms to liberate," says Hala Ismael, referring to an Israeli-occupied mountainside running along Lebanon's southeast border. "And after that we will turn our eyes to liberating Jerusalem," she adds.