Despite delays, prisoner swap leaves Hezbollah emboldened
In Lebanon, hundreds waited for five prisoners, who were treated as returning heroes.
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The four Hezbollah fighters are expected to return to active duty with the group once they have recovered from their ordeal. Izzat Kourani, the wife of Maher Kourani, one of the Hezbollah detainees, says that she would insist her husband continue serving with the organization.Skip to next paragraph
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"When you are living next door to a country like Israel, how could I possibly ask my husband to leave the Resistance," she says. "Our blood is in the Resistance and I will not accept him to leave. In fact, we need more freedom fighters for they are the guarantee for the future of my son."
Shortly after 9 a.m., a convoy of a dozen ambulances belonging to the Islamic Health Committee, a Hezbollah organization, inched through the crowd toward the border. The caskets carrying the remains of the two Israeli soldiers were hidden from view by drawn black curtains.
During the two years of UN-brokered negotiations, Hezbollah refused to reveal the condition of the two men. Although there was some speculation that one of them might still be alive, the grim truth emerged when two coffins were lifted from the back of one of the ambulances and handed over to the International Committee for the Red Cross at the border crossing.
The passage of the ambulances sent a ripple of anticipation through the crowd as it appeared the swap was finally under way. But as the hours ticked by and the scorching sun rose higher, the crowd began to relax, swigging from bottles of water handed out by Hezbollah men, or seeking shade in the banana groves lining the road. Even the dignitaries – secular Hezbollah-allied politicians, and Shiite, Sunni, and Druze clerics – began to wilt in the heat. Turbans were removed, brows mopped while Hezbollah aides handed out yellow baseball caps to the hatless.
Hezbollah attempted to keep up spirits with martial music blaring from loudspeakers, a group of horsemen galloping up and down the road, and a troupe of dancers. By the late afternoon, a flower-bedecked truck carried the coffins of the 12 Arab fighters slowly past the grandstand. The caskets were wrapped in the red-and-white Lebanese national flag. Then the crowd settled down to await the arrival of the Lebanese detainees.
The five Lebanese were driven across the border a little after 5 p.m. and met by cheering crowds, throwing rice and rose petals in a traditional gesture of welcome. The five were later flown by helicopter to Beirut airport where an official reception was held for them.
At a mass rally late Wednesday in Beirut's southern suburbs, Hezbollah's stronghold, Sheikh Nasrallah made a rare public appearance to welcome the five men back. "This people, this nation and this country, which gave a clear image today, cannot be defated," he said, according to Reuters, before he left to deliver a speech by video link from a secure spot.