The Israeli government agreed Sunday to free a Lebanese gunman convicted in one of the grisliest attacks in the country's history in exchange for the bodies of two soldiers killed by Hezbollah guerrillas.
The German-mediated deal gives a rare political victory for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and closes a final chapter from Israel's inconclusive war against Hezbollah two years ago and hinted in the direction of a wider accommodation.
But critics warn that the heavy price could offer militant groups an even greater incentive to kill captive soldiers, and Hezbollah declared victory and planned celebrations.
Israel's Cabinet voted 22-3 in favor of the deal to return the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, captured by Hezbollah in a July 2006 cross-border raid that sparked a vicious monthlong war. Before the six-hour debate, Olmert announced for the first time that the soldiers were dead.
Regardless, he pushed for the deal to be approved, citing the country's deep moral commitment to its dead and captive soldiers.
"Since we were children, we have been taught that we don't leave wounded in the field and we don't leave soldiers in captivity without doing all we can to free them," he said.
Israel will also receive the remaining body parts of its soldiers from the Lebanon war and a thorough Hezbollah report about Ron Arad, a missing Israeli airman whose plane crashed in Lebanon in 1986.
Israel must release prisoner
The most difficult part of the trade for Israel is the release of Samir Kantar. He is serving multiple life sentences for infiltrating northern Israel in 1979 and killing three Israelis — a 28-year-old man, his 4-year-old daughter and an Israeli police officer.
Witnesses said Kantar smashed the little girl's head against a rock and crushed her skull with a rifle butt. The attack has been etched in the Israeli psyche as one of the cruelest in the nation's history. Kantar denied killing the girl or smashing her skull.
Her mother, while trying to silence the cries of her other daughter as Kantar and three others rampaged through the apartment, accidentally smothered the 2-year-old.
On Sunday the mother, Smadar Haran Kaiser, said she was devastated by the decision but understood it.
"The despicable murderer Kantar was never my own personal prisoner, but the state's prisoner," she told a news conference. "Even if my soul should be torn, and it is torn, my heart is whole."
Israel also agreed to release four other Lebanese prisoners, dozens of bodies and an undisclosed number of Palestinian prisoners.
Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On, who voted against the deal, told The Associated Press that he objected to the deal because "it included releasing Palestinian prisoners."
Israel's military chief of staff, the head of the Mossad intelligence agency, the commander of the Shin Bet security service and other defense officials briefed ministers before the vote. The Mossad and Shin Bet chiefs opposed the deal, while the military chief, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, supported it.
Critics of the deal
Critics argued that swapping bodies for Kantar was a dangerous precedent that would offer militant groups an even greater incentive to capture soldiers and less of a reason to keep them alive.
Dovish lawmaker Yossi Beilin told Channel 10 TV he would have backed the deal if the soldiers were still alive. "There is tremendous difference in my view between saving someone's life and receiving coffins," he said. "I pray that we didn't give these people ideas that they can carry out more kidnappings and then ask for whatever they want."
Israel is simultaneously negotiating a trade with Palestinian Hamas militants for the release of an Israeli soldier captured in a June 2006 cross-border raid from the Gaza Strip. Unlike his comrades in Lebanon, the soldier, Sgt. Gilad Schalit, has sent letters and an audio tape to his parents and is believed to be alive, though he has not been seen since his capture and the Red Cross has not been permitted to visit him either.
There are indications that the prisoner swap could signal a decrease of tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, though the warlike rhetoric on both sides is likely to continue.
On June 1, without prior notice, Israel freed a convicted Lebanese spy and Hezbollah returned parts of bodies of three soldiers. Also, Israel has been indicating at new flexibility about solving the other outstanding issue with Hezbollah — a rocket border hill known as Chebaa Farms.
Though the U.N. drew a border that leaves the small parcel outside Lebanon, Hezbollah insists it is part of the country. Israel indicates it would turn the land over to the U.N. as a deposit for a final decision, which could defuse tensions if both sides want that.
In Beirut, Hezbollah said the Israeli approval of the deal reflected the guerrilla group's strength.
"What happened in the prisoners issue is a proof that the word of the resistance is the most faithful, strongest and supreme," the group's Al-Manar TV quoted Hezbollah's Executive Council chief Hashem Safieddine as saying.
In the southern city of Sidon, members of the Popular Democratic Party were decorating the central Martyrs Square with pictures of Kantar and hanging banners such as "Freedom to the hero, prisoner Samir Kantar," "the chain must break," and "freedom comes with blood not tears."
No signs that soldiers are alive
Hezbollah had offered no sign that Goldwasser and Regev were alive, and the Red Cross was never allowed to see them. Ahead of the vote, Olmert said for the first time that Israel has concluded the two soldiers were dead — killed during the raid or shortly after.
"We know what happened to them," Olmert told the Cabinet, according to comments released by his office. "As far as we know, the soldiers Regev and Goldwasser are not alive."
Goldwasser's wife, Karnit, praised Olmert for pushing for the trade, while still trying to come to terms with the prime minister's declaration.
"My heart aches. It is very difficult for me. I am very tired, drained inside," she told reporters. "All I want to do is to digest things, try to understand what happened ... to rest a bit ... to have my pain."
Israeli officials said the deal could take place as early as next week. The trade will likely take place in Germany.
Ofer Regev, brother of kidnapped soldier Eldad Regev, said he hadn't given up hope yet.
"Until we see otherwise, we will continue hoping for a miracle to happen to us," he said.