- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2008

TEL AVIV | Hamas Wednesday congratulated Hezbollah for securing the release of five Lebanese prisoners in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, calling the deal a “victory for the resistance” that will up the ante for the release of Israeli prisoner Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

Mediated by the Red Cross, the elaborate prisoner exchange lasted most of the day. It started with the transfer at an Israeli-Lebanese coastal border crossing of two black coffins with the remains of Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.

After forensic experts confirmed the identities of the bodies, a van transferred the newly freed Lebanese captives over the border. Among them was Samir Kantar, who infiltrated the coastal town of Nahariya by boat in 1979, killing a father and his 4-year-old daughter.

“The Lebanese resistance is the model which Hamas looks up to. Hezbollah honored us today and we will continue on this path of honor,” said Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ political leader in the Gaza Strip. “This is a historic day, and all Palestinians are proud.”

Hamas has been holding Cpl. Shalit since the Israeli soldier was abducted two years ago on the Gaza border. Hamas and Israel are expected to hold a new round of negotiations via the Egyptians on a prisoner swap, and members of the Palestinian Islamic group said that Israel’s deal with Hezbollah would influence the deal for Cpl. Shalit.

Israel and Hamas have been haggling over a list of Palestinian prisoners hundreds of names long. Israeli security authorities have been reluctant to release convicts involved in the killing or wounding of Israelis. As of June, Israel held about 8,500 Palestinians in jail.

Mr. Haniyeh added that Israel could no longer refuse to release prisoners with “blood on their hands.”

“The Israelis need to pay the price for Gilad Shalit,” he said. “Our prisoners deserve the same honor.”

Wednesday’s prisoner swap is considered the closing chapter of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Despite the war ending in a draw, many consider Israel’s decision to trade convicted killers for the bodies of soldier soldiers as further evidence that Hezbollah emerged with the upper hand.

The prisoner swap also included Israel handing over the remains of Palestinians and Lebanese fighters. The Israeli families received the coffins of Mr. Goldwasser and Mr. Regev in seclusion on an army base. The men had not been heard from since July 2006.

“I feel like hope has been snuffed out,” said Miki Goldwasser, the mother of Ehud, at the entrance to the army base, according to the Ha’aretz newspaper. “We’re facing reality, and it´s a difficult reality.” The two soldiers will be buried tomorrow.

Kantar and the freed Lebanese were flown to Beirut for public celebrations. In Lebanon, the prisoner exchange is being hailed as a national holiday.

Back in Israel, former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, now a member of the parliamentary opposition, said Israel will have to release more prisoners for Cpl. Shalit because it agreed to such a high price for the soldiers’ remains.

“What happened today will make the prisoner swap with Hamas extremely difficult to achieve,” he said.

Israeli President Shimon Peres said Israel agreed to deal because “the concern for the fate of every one of our soldiers is what binds us together as a society.”

The military wing of Hamas published a statement saying that kidnappings will continue to be a means to releasing Palestinian prisoners. Dozens of Gazans celebrated in the streets, waving Palestinian and Lebanese flags and putting up posters of Kantar.

Another spokesman said that only through armed conflict, Hamas and Hezbollah succeeded in bringing Israel “to its knees.”

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