War unresolved for families of abducted Israeli troops

The Israeli soldiers taken by Hamas and Hizbullah remain held.

The front-page headlines here breathe a sigh of relief: "Returning to Routine," reads one. But for the family of Ehud Goldwasser, who was kidnapped by Hizbullah on July 12, life isn't even close to getting back to normal.

"When people say they're getting back to their routines, this is the point where my battle begins," says Gadi Goldwasser. The abduction of his older brother, Ehud, along with another Israeli soldier, Eldad Regev, sparked the month-long war between Hizbullah and Israel, now in its denouement.

But remaining in captivity are the three kidnapped Israeli soldiers – the two taken by Hizbullah and the third, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, taken a month earlier by Hamas militants from the Gaza Strip. And that, some here say, is the irony of a deadly summer of warfare that pitted Israeli troops against Palestinian militiamen in Gaza in June followed by an Israeli incursion into Lebanon aimed at Hizbullah through August. The catalyst for both conflicts – the kidnappings – remains unsolved.

The price of their return is understood to be a prisoner swap already being wrangled over in indirect talks. Palestinians have asked for several hundred prisoners held in Israeli jails, while Hizbullah's prisoner list includes four Lebanese who were given long sentences in Israel in addition to 13 Hizbullah guerrillas captured in the recent fighting. Israel's official response is that it demands the unconditional return of its soldiers, and spokesmen have refused comment on whether there are active negotiations. However, an official in the prime minister's office confirmed that Ofer Dekel, the former deputy director of Israel's domestic secret security service, is representing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in talks.

Here in this town hit by hundreds of rockets, people began to return to their homes Thursday to clean up and assess the damages. But the Goldwassers never left, weathering the war and waiting for news of Ehud. None has come.

"We agreed with the ceasefire. If the government wants it, we think it's for them to know what they're talking about," says Yair Goldwasser, another of Ehud's brothers. "We do think they could have done more to get a sign of life, a little bit of an indication of how they are. We haven't heard a word from them in 35 days."

The soldiers have become something of a symbol of war unfinished, and serve to bolster a perception among many here that the issues that dragged the country into battle are far from being solved.

"There's a strong feeling that this war was initiated, among other things, to get back the two soldiers who were captured and brought to Lebanon," says Eyal Ben-Ari, an expert on the Israeli military at the Hebrew University. "And the fact that the return of the two soldiers was not part of the cease-fire deal was seen as a failure on the part of Olmert and the military. This may create a high public tolerance for exchanges. Given the precedent of these kinds of exchanges in the past, I think there will be something similar now, and I don't think we'll see a backlash against it."

A cease-fire deal went into effect on Monday morning, two days after the UN passed resolution 1709, calling for an end to hostilities. The text of that resolution did not stipulate what would happen to the abducted Israelis soldiers nor to Lebanese prisoners in Israel, mentioning only that the resolution's signatories were "mindful of the sensitivity of the issue of prisoners and encouraging the efforts aimed at urgently settling the issue of the Lebanese prisoners detained in Israel."

In the recent past, Israel has agreed to prisoner exchanges that were later criticized domestically as deeply lopsided. In 2004, Israel released 436 prisoners and 59 bodies in exchange for one citizen and the remains of three soldiers. But the disgruntlement with that exchange is tied up in a belief in Israeli culture that the country must stop at nothing – be it waging war or talking with sworn enemies – to see their soldiers returned.

"There's a very strong ethos in the military of not leaving soldiers behind, or even the bodies of any dead soldiers behind," says Mr. Ben-Ari. "There's an implicit social contract between the soldiers and the state: We'll take care of you, we'll take care of your family, and if you're kidnapped, we'll get you out."

Israeli officials say that the Lebanese prisoners held in Israel but not freed in the last prisoner release are being held for a reason: They were convicted of specific crimes. The most prominent prisoner is Samir Kuntar, who was convicted for breaking into an Israeli family's apartment in 1979 and killing Danny Haran and his 4-year-old daughter. Mr. Haran's wife hid in a closet and accidentally suffocated their infant while trying to keep her quiet.

Neither Israeli nor Palestinian officials would comment on whether there were active negotiations taking place over a release of Corporal Shalit, although in recent weeks Palestinian officials made clear that the list of prisoners whose release they seek includes Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, whom Israel jailed during the last intifada with several life sentences. Close to 10,000 Palestinians are in Israeli custody.

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