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Deaths confirmed, Israel weeps as one

The sight of the two coffins ends hopes that the soldiers, who were traded for prisoners, could have survived.

July 17, 2008|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer
  • An Israeli soldier secures the area, left, as officers of the Israeli Army's Chief Rabinate Unit remove a black coffin containing the remains of an Israeli soldier  from a Red Cross truck during a prisoner swap with Lebanon at the Lebanon-Israeli border.  More photos >>>
An Israeli soldier secures the area, left, as officers of the Israeli Army's… (Anwar Amro / Associated…)

JERUSALEM — The Regevs wanted privacy. But that didn't stop dozens of friends, neighbors and schoolchildren from lighting candles outside their home in a quiet suburb of Haifa. Or TV crews from filming the vigil. Or viewers all over Israel from watching it live.

Eldad Regev and fellow soldier Ehud Goldwasser were national figures. And they were finally coming home.

Israeli leaders had held out little hope that the two army reservists, whose capture set off a full-scale war with Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas two summers ago, were still alive. But hope was all the two families could cling to, and for a few hours Wednesday morning people across the country were drawn into the suspense.

When threatened from outside, Israeli Jews relate to one another like members of an extended family. The anguish felt by the Goldwassers and Regevs has been widely shared in a country where most young people serve in the military. Their private campaign became a national crusade.

That solidarity helps explain how the two families managed to press reluctant Israeli leaders into trading a notorious killer and four other jailed Lebanese militants for their sons in a U.N.-mediated deal with Hezbollah.

And it explains the grief that washed over the country just before 10 a.m. as TV broadcasts showed Hezbollah militants deliver two black coffins to the Lebanese side of a coastal border gate.

Only then were the soldiers' deaths confirmed.

"In Israel, the nation is in tears," President Shimon Peres said. "Today, all of us are the Goldwasser and Regev families."

Through television Israelis have come to know Shlomo and Mickey Goldwasser, whose son was 30 when he and Regev were captured on July 12, 2006. Karnit Goldwasser, who had married the reservist 10 months earlier, has become a celebrity for her globe-trotting campaign on his behalf.

Portraits of the two men, with the slogan "Bring our sons home," were ubiquitous in Israel -- Goldwasser, the professional photographer in civilian life, and Regev, whose acceptance to law school came a few days after his capture at age 26.

That intimacy gave their families little room for private grief over their deaths. Facing a crowd of reporters in his hometown of Nahariya, Shlomo Goldwasser said the image of the coffins hit him like "a punch in the gut."

Regev's aunt Hannah screamed, "Eldad! Eldad! What have they done to you?" and collapsed outside the family's home after watching the same televised scene.

"It was horrible to see," Zvi Regev, the soldier's father, said later. "I asked them to turn off the TV."

David Druckman, the rabbi in the Regevs' town, criticized the swap as an invitation to more elaborate operations to seize Israeli soldiers. "This is a black day," he said.

But surveys show a majority of Israelis supported the deal because it upheld an unwritten pact between the country's leaders and the public: Israelis send their sons and daughters to mandatory military service, ready to go to war; leaders do everything possible to bring them home, dead or alive, from battle.

"This closes a circle for me," said Ira Ben-Giat, whose son died on the 32nd day of the 34-day war against Hezbollah, a conflict Israel pursued in part to retrieve the two captured soldiers. "I was waiting for a justification to have sacrificed my son, waiting for these two boys to return home. Today gives me this reason, and a reason to send my other two children to the army."

Though that kind of motivation is a source of strength for Israel, it means the country pays dearly for each captured soldier. Israel faces another such test as it negotiates with Hamas for the Palestinian militant group's release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was captured in June 2006 and is reportedly alive in the Gaza Strip.

Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader who runs Gaza, warned Wednesday that Israel, which is balking at the group's demand that it free thousands of Palestinian prisoners, will have to "pay the price" for Shalit's return.

But first the Goldwassers and Regevs have unfinished business with Hezbollah. They want Israel to extract a report from the militant group explaining when and how their sons died. They were believed to have been seriously wounded when captured; Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has said they were taken alive.

Nasrallah shed no light on that question in a speech hailing the prisoners' return to Lebanon. He said a key to the success of the swap was "the failure of the enemy's security and secret services to learn the fate" of the soldiers until the very last minute.


Batsheva Sobelman of The Times' Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.

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