JERUSALEM (MCT) After an emotional public debate, Israel's Cabinet on Sunday approved a deal with Hezbollah for the return of two Israeli soldiers believed to be dead and whose capture two years ago triggered a monthlong war with the Lebanese guerrilla group.
In exchange, Israel is to release a notorious Lebanese prisoner convicted of brutally killing an Israeli girl and her father in a 1979 attack and will also hand over other prisoners and bodies of slain infiltrators.
The deal had provoked anguished discussion in Israel about the price that should be paid for the recovery of soldiers in enemy hands and whether the government was doing enough to bring them home.
The debate was spearheaded by the captive soldiers' families, who had mobilized mounting public pressure on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to conclude a deal.
The Cabinet debated nearly six hours before voting 22-3 to endorse the agreement, which was brokered by a German mediator. The deal was backed by the army chief of staff but opposed by the heads of Israel's domestic and foreign intelligence services, the Shin Bet and Mossad, Israeli media reported.
Under the terms of the deal, Hezbollah will return the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, two Israeli reserve soldiers seized in July 2006 in a cross-border ambush.
Olmert told the Cabinet that "as far as we know" the two soldiers are dead and that they had either been killed in the ambush or had died shortly thereafter.
Israel is to free Samir Kuntar, who is serving multiple life sentences for a 1979 attack remembered as one of the most brutal in the country's history.
Kuntar was part of a squad from the Palestine Liberation Front that infiltrated the northern Israeli coastal town of Nahariya from the sea, killed a police officer and burst into the apartment of the Haran family. Witnesses said that after leading Danny Haran and his 4-year old daughter to the beach, Kuntar shot the father before smashing the girl's skull against a rock with his rifle butt.
Haran's wife, Smadar, hiding with another daughter in a crawl space in the family apartment, accidentally smothered the 2-year-old girl in a frantic attempt to keep her quiet.
On Sunday, Smadar Haran Kaiser, who remarried and had previously lobbied against Kuntar's release, reluctantly endorsed the prisoner swap. In a letter to Cabinet members, she wrote that "my personal pain should not be a consideration" when debating the exchange.
"The despicable murderer Samir Kuntar was never my own personal prisoner but the state's prisoner," Kaiser said, reading the letter at a news conference. "Even if my soul should be torn, and it is indeed torn, my heart is whole." She added: "I live in a democratic country and I accept the state's decisions."
Israel is to release four other Lebanese gunmen held in Israeli prisons, and, at a later stage, an undetermined number of Palestinian prisoners. Dozens of bodies of slain infiltrators and militants, including the remains of eight Hezbollah men, are also to be handed over.
No date was given for the exchange, but it is expected in the coming weeks.
Israel is still negotiating the release of another captive soldier, Gilad Shalit, who has been held for two years in the Gaza Strip since being seized in a cross-border raid by the militant group Hamas and two allied groups. Hamas is demanding the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
On Sunday Israel reopened its border crossings with the Gaza Strip to allow limited supplies into the territory after shutting the borders last week in response to rocket attacks by Palestinian militants. The rocket firings and border closings had threatened to derail a shaky truce that went into effect June 19.
In the West Bank, Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian teenager in a street clash in the village of Tubas, the second such incident in three days. The army said the youth had hurled two Molotov cocktails at the soldiers.