ROSH HANIKRA, Israel Without pomp but with modest ceremony, Israel on Wednesday somberly brought home the bodies of two of its soldiers in black coffins, part of a long-awaited prisoner exchange with the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.
In return, at this cliff-top border crossing on the coast high above the Mediterranean, Israel handed over Samir Kuntar, who had been held nearly three decades after being convicted in a deadly and notorious attack, along with four other Lebanese prisoners and the bodies of 199 combatants and infiltrators from Lebanon. The bodies were exhumed from a cemetery in northern Israel and driven to the border in 10 Red Cross trucks.
The two Israeli soldiers, Sgt. 1st Class Ehud Goldwasser and Staff Sgt. Eldad Regev, were seized in a cross-border raid carried out by Hezbollah on July 12, 2006, an attack that set off a monthlong war between Israel and Hezbollah that killed some 160 Israelis and more than 1,000 Lebanese.
In some respects, Wednesday's exchange closed a final chapter of the 2006 war. But far from ameliorating the simmering hostility between the sides, the deal has further hardened the feelings of many Israelis who charged that Hezbollah toyed with the emotions of the families of the missing soldiers up to the very end.
For the last two years, Hezbollah had refused to clarify whether the soldiers both reservists and students at the time of their capture were dead or alive, although Israeli officials concluded that both were badly wounded in the ambush and most likely had not survived.
But the moment of truth only came after 9 a.m. on Wednesday as the first stage of the exchange got under way at Nakkoura, on the Lebanese side of the border. A Hezbollah representative, Wafiq Safa, announced that the soldiers' fate would "now be revealed" and gestured toward the two coffins.
After the coffins were transferred to the Israeli side of the border, it took several hours for the military authorities to positively identify the soldiers' remains and to inform the bereaved families who were waiting in their homes. Then, at about 5 p.m., Kuntar and the other prisoners were taken across the border.
Although Israel has a history of trading large numbers of prisoners to obtain the release of captured soldiers, the deal with Hezbollah has stirred an especially painful debate, with some feeling the price was too high.