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.

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.

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.

"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.

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