In Israel, a nation mourns with the families of slain soldiers

Two soldiers whose remains were part of a prisoner swap with Hezbollah were eulogized Thursday amid ongoing unease over the exchange and questions about balancing family interests with those of the state.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Kamit Goldwasser: The widow of soldier Ehud Goldwasser launched an international campaign to keep his capture from fading from the headlines.
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For Israelis, their Second Lebanon War, fought in summer 2006, came to a close only on Thursday, when the two soldiers whose capture became the cause for launching the conflict were laid to rest before their families and the eyes of a solemn nation.

But even in their return – which transpired a day earlier as part of a swap with Hezbollah, who traded the men's bodies for the remains of some 200 Lebanese plus five Lebanese prisoners – there is still unease about the lopsided trade-off and questions about balancing the interests of affected families against those of the state.

Under a sweltering July sky at the Nahariya military cemetery, which overlooks the same Mediterranean that hugs the Beirut coastline where Hezbollah continued victory celebrations Thursday, many family members and friends who eulogized "Udi" – Ehud Goldwasser – seemed to want to shift the sentiment that Israel had somehow lost to Hezbollah.

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"I stand at attention before you with my eyes lifted toward my people with the request: Stand tall, lift your heads in national pride," mother Miki Goldwasser said at her son's graveside.

"They say because of you, a war broke out. I hope we can see this war as a victory. Through this, we have discovered that we are a strong people. We have discovered bereaved families with an undefeatable, powerful spirit. We have discovered kindness."

The most powerful words to the gathering of a few thousand came from widow Karnit Goldwasser, who has been the spokeswoman of an international campaign to release her husband and Eldad Regev, then believed to be alive.

"They say time heals all wounds," she said. "But is this really so? Two years have passed since that debilitating moment that cut through our life's thread, the moment in which the worst scenario became a threatening reality that forced us to dive into a dark and convoluted world. I believed and hoped that the moment would come where I would wake up and say it was all just a bad dream."

But Israelis have been waking up to find that many of their goals have gone unrealized. The prisoner exchange has Israel feeling like it was "played." Some wondered why Israel agreed to the swap, if Hezbollah wasn't straight with Israel about whether the two were alive and whether they had information about Ron Arad, who was captured in Lebanon in 1986 and is considered missing in action.

Groundswell of public pressure

Part of the answer, analysts say, is that the families succeeded in creating a groundswell of public pressure to bring their sons home, dead or alive, even at the cost of releasing Lebanon's Samir Kuntar, convicted of killing four Israelis in a 1979 raid here.

"What we witnessed in the last two years and more is that the families of those soldiers and the involvement of the Israeli media and public opinion is very strong in affecting the decisionmakers," says Yitzhak Reiter, a professor of political science and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"It affects the ability to negotiate on a fair bargain," he says. "This is something that Israel should handle differently. Perhaps the government in the near future will make an official decision that dead bodies will be exchanged only for dead bodies, and live soldiers for live soldiers.

"If the other side doesn't give you complete information about your soldiers, such as whether they are dead or alive, then you just don't do it. The government could put this criteria in place, and then if a situation occurs in the future, the enemy knows our principles and won't expect otherwise," Mr. Reiter says.

Israel's principle is that it is immoral to leave any soldier or citizen on foreign soil. It has, as a result, sometimes traded hundreds of prisoners for the release of one man. This ethos has come under some criticism in recent days. But Defense Minister Ehud Barak, speaking at Goldwasser's funeral, defended it vehemently.

"We were prepared to pay a high price, even higher than what seemed logical, in order to see our sons sent home," Mr. Barak said. "If any of you, God forbid, should be captured, or should anything worse happen in the fight against the terror, Israel, its government, and the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] will do everything just and possible to bring you home."

But Aviva Cavaille, a young woman who came to the funeral, said most Israelis could not understand how their government had agreed to a swap that didn't include Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Hamas more than two years ago while on duty close to the Gaza Strip.

"From the ethical point of view, it's not acceptable that we got the bodies of two men, and for that we released a murderer who is alive and celebrating in Lebanon," says Ms. Cavaille. "It creates a greater danger for kidnappings in the future. It shows the weakness of our leadership."

Family persistence

At the same time, many others give Karnit Goldwasser credit for keeping the case of the abducted soldiers on the agenda, traveling globally and trying to force leaders to push for progress on an issue that could have easily have disappeared from the headlines. Among the partners in this were leaders in the American Jewish community, who had made dog tags with the names of the soldiers on them and asked people to wear them in solidarity.

"Karnit singlehandedly raised this level of awareness through her own public presence, and I think that's what got us to this point," says Lori Klinghoffer, the chairwoman of National Women's Philanthropy in the United Jewish Communities, a US umbrella group. "There have been other missing soldiers, and they usually stay in the news for a week or two."

Some Israelis bristled at the public's questioning over the way the swap tallied up.

Columnis Yair Lapid wrote in the Yediot Ahronoth newspaper that even in Israel's "hyperactive democracy" people should occasionally assume that the right decision was made.

"The deal that ended yesterday wasn't good or bad, only necessary. Anyone who thinks there were other options, deludes himself," Mr. Lapid wrote. "While it's true that Hezbollah is more calculated in its attitude toward the fate of its people, who would want to be Hezbollah today? The clamorous debate over the question of 'Did we get a good price or not,' should be kept for buying cars."

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