Friday, July 18, 2008

NAHARIYA, Israel (AP) | Thousands of Israelis prayed and cried at funerals Thursday for two soldiers whose return from Lebanon in black coffins touched off a nationwide wave of anguish.

Across the border, a second day of celebrations swept Lebanon for the five militants freed by Israel in exchange for the soldiers’ bodies. The five prayed at the grave of a slain Hezbollah military commander and vowed to keep fighting Israel.

The contrast in moods was tangible. In Israel, sorrowful pictures and sounds of the funerals of the two soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, dominated TV and radio broadcasts through the day, the tears of the widows and parents shown over and over.

Soldiers carried Mr. Regev’s casket, draped with the blue and white Israeli flag, into the military cemetery in the northern city of Haifa. A military rabbi chanted as Mr. Regev’s father leaned on another family member, who comforted him. Thousands of other mourners trailed behind.

Mr. Regev and Mr. Goldwasser were captured two years ago in a cross-border raid by Hezbollah fighters - an attack that led to a 34-day war between Israel and the Islamic militant group in southern Lebanon.

Earlier in the day, soldiers from Mr. Goldwasser’s reserve unit, who asked to be called up to duty for the day, carried his casket to the grave, lowering it into the ground in Nahariya, another northern town.

Over the past two years, Mr. Goldwasser’s widow, Karnit, had led a campaign to secure the release of her husband and Mr. Regev, frequently traveling abroad and meeting with world leaders, even confronting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a New York press conference last September.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose handling of the 2006 war was widely criticized, did not attend either funeral, although he was present at a ceremony Wednesday when the soldiers’ remains were returned.

In Lebanon, attention centered on Samir Kantar, who spent nearly three decades in an Israeli prison after being convicted of killing a father, his 4-year-old daughter and a policeman during a 1979 attack. He denied killing the little girl.

He and the four other freed militants visited the grave of Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in a car bomb blast in Syria in February. Hezbollah blamed Israel, which denied playing any role in his killing.

“We swear by God … to continue on your same path and not to retreat until we achieve the same stature that God bestowed on you,” Mr. Kantar said. He referred to Mr. Mughniyeh’s “martyrdom,” saying: “This is our great wish. We envy you and we will achieve it, God willing.”

Later in the day, hundreds of people welcomed Mr. Kantar in his hometown of Abey, a mountain hamlet 10 miles south of Beirut.

As part of the exchange, Israel also returned the bodies of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters killed over the past three decades. The convoy carrying them was stopped often along the way in Lebanon by throngs who showered the coffins with rice and rose petals.

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