Middle East
Middle East mourns fallen fighters
Dead Lebanese fighters are sent to Beirut while funeral is held for Israeli soldier.
Last Modified: 17 Jul 2008 16:37 GMT
The bodies of nearly 200 fighters were released by Israel in the exchange [AFP]

The bodies of nearly 200 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters, returned as part of an exchange deal with Israel, are heading towards Beirut from southern Lebanon.

The remains of the Arab fighters passed through the border town of Naqura on Thursday, a day after Israel exchanged them along with five prisoners for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers held by Hezbollah.

As the bodies, most of which are yet to be identified, were being transported to the Lebanese capital, thousands of people attended funerals for Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the Israeli soldiers.

David Chater, Al Jazeera's correspondent at Goldwasser's funeral in Nahariya, said that the Israeli government has reiterated its pledge to bring home missing or dead soldiers in foreign countries.

"Ehud Barak [Israel's defence minister] made a big promise that Israel would do anything to get any of their soldiers back again," he said.

"He said that efforts would not cease to get back Gilad Shalit [an Israeli soldier] from the Gaza Strip ... and that Israel would continue efforts to look for Ron Arad, a missing Israeli air force navigator who disappeared when his plane crashed in Lebanon in 1986."

The Israeli government is mindful that Hezbollah had the best side of the latest exchange deal, Chater said.

"There is a lot of thought going on. A committee is being prepared by the Israeli government so that some kind of rule can be set for prisoner exchanges," he said.

Controversial handover

The Lebanese prisoners released by Israel as part of the exchange deal with Hezbollah have received a heroes' welcome on returning home.

Nasrallah, right, hailed the return of
Kuntar to Lebanon [AFP]
One of the five men handed over by Israel is Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese Druze who was jailed in 1979 for three murders in Israel.

Kuntar returned to his home town of Abeih on Thursday, where Druze politicians on both sides of the political divide greeted him.

"Only a month ago there was fighting between supporters of Walid Jumblatt, from the pro-government camp, and the Hezbollah-led opposition," Rula Amin, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Abeih, said.

"Now, Jumblatt, a leading member of the pro-government camp, and Talal Arslan, a Druze member of the opposition, are here to celebrate the return of Samir Kuntar. It is a new page for Lebanon."

The four other Lebanese released in the exchange deal were captured by Israel during its war against Hezbollah in 2006.

Goldwasser and Regev were captured in a cross-border raid by Hezbollah, which sparked the 34-day conflict.

The five free men were greeted by Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, at a mass rally held in their honour in south Beirut.

After hugging and kissing each of the former prisoners, Nasrallah addressed the tens of thousands of people in the crowd, many of them waving the yellow-and-green flag of the movement, hailing the "victory". 

"This people and this nation and this country that gave a clear picture to the world ... cannot be defeated," he said.

Nasrallah's appearance was the first time he had been seen in public since January.

Kuntar, dressed in military fatigues, also spoke at the rally, and said that he would continue to fight Israel.

He said: "I haven't for even one day regretted what I did."
"On the contrary, I remain committed to my political  convictions."

Israelis sombre

A ceremony for the dead Israeli soldiers was held at a military base [AFP]
In contrast to the upbeat mood in Lebanon, the scene across the border in Israel was sombre. 

Miri Eisin, a former aide to Olmert, said Israel found the release of Kuntar an "incredibly difficult decision".

"Today in Israel we are mainly reflecting on the price we pay in our country to defend our borders," she told Al Jazeera.

The decision to release Kuntar was particularly controversial.

He had been held in an Israeli jail since 1979 after being found guilty of murdering three Israelis, one of them a four-year-old girl, in a raid in Nahariya earlier that year.

Kuntar's family says that he did not commit any of the murders and that the Israelis were killed during a shootout with Israeli security forces trying to apprehend Kuntar and other members of his group.

The capture of Regev and Goldwasser meant that Hezbollah could bargain for Kuntar's release.

Israel's attempt to secure the release of their soldiers during the war that followed was unsuccessful.

Robert Fisk, a Middle East expert and journalist with The Independent newspaper, told Al Jazeera of the exchange: "It's regarded as being the final chapter of the 2006 war.

"The Israelis certainly lost that war, they did not get their prisoners back - not until now and they're getting them back dead. So more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians and more than 160 Israelis, most of them soldiers, all died for absolutely nothing and that's what [these] prisoner exchanges prove."

Al Jazeera and agencies
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