Israel mourns soldiers returned dead by Hezbollah

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July 17, 2008, 5:55 am
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(NECN/ABC) - Thousands of mourners gathered on Thursday in the northern Israeli town of Nahariya to bury the first of two soldiers returned in a prisoner exchange with Lebanon's Hezbollah group. Ehud Goldwasser was one of two soldiers whose remains were returned by Hezbollah in exchange for five Lebanese prisoners and the remains of some 200 Arab fighters. His wooden coffin was lowered into the ground by soldiers wearing the purple caps of an elite brigade. His widower, Karnit Goldwasser, held on to her late husband's father as each wiped away tears. In keeping with Jewish tradition, Goldwasser's father Shlomo wore a shirt ripped at the front, to signify mourning. Later, an Israeli military rabbi recited the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning. Another funeral is expected later on Thursday for Eldad Regev, the other soldier returned in the Israel-Hezbollah exchange on Wednesday. The prisoner exchange with Hezbollah closed a painful chapter from Israel's 2006 war against the militant group, which began after Lebanese guerillas captured the two soldiers in a cross-border raid. A sombre air hung over Israel on Thursday. Radios played soft, subdued music and newspapers published a picture on their page of Karnit Goldwasser hugging Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as they touched the coffin. Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak flanks the two, his lips turned down in sadness. Meanwhile, residents of Nahariya and Kiryat Motzkin spoke to AP Television about their grief over the deaths of the two soldiers. "I cannot describe the feeling, there are no words," said one woman in Nahariya, fighting back tears. Another woman said it was "very said". "I feel as if he was my son, he is a son of the neighbourhood, we all grew up together. This ending is very, very sad, that that is the way it's ended, " she added. In the apartment building where Eldad Regev lived, neighbours lit candles and said prayers. "In a morning like this, we decided to come here and remember the soldiers that have returned," said one of those who went to the apartment building. In its exchange with Hezbollah, Israel freed Samir Kantar, a Lebanese militant convicted of killing a father in front of his 4-year-old daughter, and then killing the little girl by crushing her skull with a rifle butt. The girl's 2-year-old sister was accidentally smothered by her mother, who held her hand over the toddler's mouth to stifle her cries while the two hid in a crawl space. The lopsided prisoner swap, trading Kantar and the others for just bodies, raised questions in the Jewish State about its policy of bringing back its soldiers, dead or alive, at any price. Critics argued that Israel's uneven exchanges with militant groups only encourage then to capture more soldiers. The issue is particularly relevant because militants linked to Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, has held an Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit for the past two years. Schalit is believed to be alive, and Hamas is demanding Israel release Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails in exchange.

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