With the prisoner exchange with Hizbullah approaching its tragic climax, dozens of news crews at Rosh HaNikra and throughout the country are broadcasting the reactions of observers to the latest developments. The bitterly contested prisoner exchange is developing into one of Israel's most riveting and painful episodes, while Hizbullah and the PA celebrate victory and renew their threat to kidnap more IDF soldiers.
The conclusion of the prisoner exchange began Tuesday night with the release of child-murderer Samir Kuntar and four of his co-terrorists, and continued through Wednesday morning with the release of the coffins of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, all caught on camera for the nation and the world to see.
To the families of the two captured IDF soldiers, the news that their sons are dead is a tragedy, while to others in Israel the prospect of handing over alive-and-well murderers of innocent Jews in exchange for dead bodies is a travesty. For those who support terrorism, the release is being hailed as a victory for Hizbullah and the struggle to destroy Israel, coupled with an admission of defeat from the Jewish state.
As images of the coffins of Regev and Goldwasser appeared on television, cries could be heard coming from the Regev family home when they suddenly realized what they feared most: They would never see their son Eldad alive again.
Once the news he was dead began to spread, the area around the Regev residence became quickly crowded with family members and friends of Eldad, who gathered outside his home to show support for the grieving parents and to honor the memory of their loved one. The visitors began a vigil outside his Kiryat Motzkin home as they lit memorial candles for Eldad. Another vigil formed at the Goldwasser home.
Eldad Regev's aunt, Hanna, collapsed when she saw the images of her nephew's coffin, and had to be treated by paramedics who were standing by.
Meanwhile, the family of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit sent the Regev and Goldwasser families "all their love and support on this hard day." The words of comfort came from Gilad's father Noam, who added: "We support the families, love them and strengthen them." Noam said that he has not spoken yet to the two families. "I assume they want to be alone right now, and I respect their wishes," he explained, but said he will contact them later in the day.
Speaking hours before he saw the televised images of his brother's coffin, Eyal Regev accepted the prospect of his brother's death with equanimity: "We understand the weight of the price, and it is a source of pain." He went on to praise the Israeli government for their decision to release multiple murderers in exchange for his likely-dead brother. "The State of Israel should be proud of returning the boys; this is our moral responsibility towards their fate," Eyal remarked.
Shlomo Goldwasser, father of Ehud Goldwasser, had defiant words for those who killed his son. "If Hizbullah's great achievement is the release of Kuntar, who is nothing but a repulsive murderer, then I pity them."
The Regev and Goldwasser families have quietly accepted the fate of their slain sons and expressed gratitude for Israel's willingness to hand over the terrorists in order to get their boys back, dead or alive. However, there are many who have strongly opposed the swap, including top military and intelligence officials who urged Prime Minister Olmert's cabinet to reject the deal, considering it a big mistake for Israel.
A backlash against the prisoner release was heard from many in the Knesset. MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud) condemned the release of Kuntar and the other terrorists, calling it a "tragic".
"This is a tragic end for the families [of the soldiers], and it is also a very bad end for Israel's fight against terrorism," said Steinitz in a Tuesday morning Channel 2 interview. "The celebrations of the terrorist organizations in Lebanon - and they have reason for celebration - conclude two years of a failed Israeli battle against terrorism."
Steinitz underscored the growing strength of Hizbullah as a factor in the terror group's ability to manipulate Israeli policymaking. "Hizbullah has come out of these two years stronger military and stronger politically. With our help, Hizbullah has mislead us for two years regarding the condition of the abducted soldiers, as to whether they are dead or alive.
"We have become the only country in the West and perhaps in the entire world, which is ready to release terrorist murderers in exchange for bodies and body parts," he remarked. "This is a dangerous precedent… and I must say that the entire country has derailed."
Steinitz also indicted the Israeli press for contributing to national derailment: "The media has a part in this," he charged.
"Even in difficult situations, there remain principles. And our leadership…must lead, and not be led by the public or by the media, and not even by the families [of the POW's]. And when you lead, there are long term factors of national security to be taken into consideration.
"A prize was awarded today to terrorism. It reflects a general policy of surrender to Hizbullah and to Hamas in Gaza. We have given Hamas a de facto authorization to continue to rearm and build itself into a Hizbullah II in Gaza," Steinitz concluded.
Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens echoed the anti-swap deal sentiment, deeming the decision to release the terrorists a "complete lack of judgement" and calling the Olmert cabinet's deal a "mistake that is forbidden to make," as it encourages the enemy to kidnap more soldiers.
There has been public as well as official outcry in Israel at the prisoner swap.
Shifra Hoffman, founder of Victims of Arab Terror International (VAT) organization, said her group “strongly condemns the government of Israel for agreeing to release Samir Kuntar, the bestial child killer and other Arab terrorists with ‘blood on their hands.’ This obscene exchange with Hizbullah, has, in effect, murdered the Jewish victims twice, and has opened the door for future terrorist attacks by Arab killers, who see that they have nothing to fear in perpetrating these horrendous acts on innocent Israeli men, woman and children.”
Hoffman added in a Tuesday interview with INN that Hoffman added in an interview with INN that in its decision to release the Hizbullah murderers, the Israeli government is acting against the express opposition of military and security experts.
The release of the murderers has touched a personal nerve among other Israelis who've lost loved ones to terrorists. Nina Keren, the mother of one of Samir Kuntar's four victims, expressed outrage at the release her son's killer and other murderers, calling it a "disgrace."
Keren, mother of Dani Haran-one of the four Jewish victims of Kuntar's 1979 cross-border murder spree-said that she "could not stop crying" when she heard the news that her son's killer will be freed.
Keren said that releasing terrorists with blood on their hands is a "big mistake", warning reporters Tuesday that Samir Kuntar will kill more Jews once he is released back into Lebanon, echoing Kuntar's own vow to resume his terrorist activities against Israelis once freed. Similar statements have been made by Arab leaders, several of whom said Wednesday that the release of Kuntar and the others is a sign that kidnapping IDF soldiers works and that will continue to promote such kidnappings.
While Israel mourns a painful homecoming for its dead soldiers amid a chorus of protest over the release of living and unrepentant terrorists, the enemies of the Jewish state are cheering what they see a clear victory over Israel.
The Lebanese government plans to hold a state ceremony in Beirut honoring the terrorists about to be released by Israel, including those who murdered innocent Israeli civilians.
In the ceremony in the Lebanese capital, Prime Minister Fouad Saniora and President Michel Suleiman will officially greet the freed operatives, ahead of a Hizbullah event celebrating what the terror group declares is an Israeli admission of defeat.
Hizbullah boasted about the prisoner swap in a report from the AP. The terrorist group who kidnapped and killed several IDF soldiers announced Tuesday that Israel's approval of the swap deal is an official admission of defeat by the Jewish state.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas congratulated the family of Samir Kuntar and sent his condolences to the Lebanese families receiving their loved ones' bodies as part of the deal.
In Gaza, Hamas terrorist leader Ismail Haniyeh congratulated Samir Kuntar on his impending release from Israeli prison and his triumphant return to Lebanon. Haniyeh praised "the great victory the resistance has had, which proved the righteousness of our ways," and said his own terrorist organization would likewise remain loyal to its operatives jailed in Israel as well, a hint that Hamas has been emboldened by the release to kidnap more IDF soldiers.
"From the al-Bureij camp, the camp of strong standing, I once against congratulate Lebanon," proclaimed Haniyeh. "We tell them that this operation is the best lesson that can be achieved – a victory over the occupation, liberating lands and liberating prisoners."
The Hamas prime minister said that the deal with Hizbullah, which included the return of the bodies of kidnapped soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, gave him hope. "This is a precedent," he said.
Abu Mujahed, a spokesman for the Gaza-based umbrella terror group Popular Resistance Committees, told Ynet Wednesday that the completion of the deal "even after the images of the Israeli soldiers' coffins, proves that kidnapping soldiers will continue to be the most efficient, favored and ideal way to release Palestinian prisoners, particularly those defined by the enemy as having blood on their hands."