JERUSALEM — The Israeli Cabinet's approval Sunday of a prisoner swap with the militant group Hezbollah touched off cries of victory in Lebanon and sparked fresh debate within the Jewish state over the price of its determination to retrieve missing soldiers.
After weeks of emotional public speculation and a six-hour Cabinet debate, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government voted 22 to 3 in favor of a deal that would return two captured Israeli soldiers. Olmert acknowledged Sunday that they were probably dead.
In return for the men or their bodies, Hezbollah would receive several imprisoned Lebanese militants, the bodies of about a dozen other fighters and the release of a still-unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners.
Hezbollah's leadership still has to approve the deal, but the Shiite Muslim group on Sunday hailed it as a victory for the strategy of armed resistance.
"Today the enemy was forced to recognize the logic of the resistance," said an announcer on the Hezbollah-run Al Manar television channel. "Our prisoners cannot be liberated with words, diplomacy and tears. Blood liberated the land as well as the people."
At the top of the list of those sought by Hezbollah is Samir Kuntar, Israel's longest-held Lebanese prisoner. He is serving life sentences in the 1979 deaths of several members of an Israeli family and a police officer. Al Manar showed footage of preparations to celebrate Kuntar's return in the southern coastal city of Saida.
Olmert told his Cabinet that the agreement would "bring an end to this painful episode -- even at the painful price it costs us. . . . From our earliest days, we are taught that we do not leave men behind."
Just how high a price Olmert paid will be an ongoing topic of Israeli public debate, focused on the danger of agreeing to trade the living for the dead -- as might be the case here.
The two soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, were captured in a July 2006 cross-border ambush that touched off a monthlong war between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Evidence from the scene indicated that both soldiers were wounded in the attack, one of them gravely.
Unlike in the case of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier taken in southern Israel in June 2006 and still held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah has offered no proof that either Regev or Goldwasser is alive. The International Committee of the Red Cross was never allowed to visit them.
The deal touches deep and controversial emotional chords that resonate through Israel's national psyche. The retrieval of captured soldiers is a core national value in a country where military service is mandatory for most.
"The state has an essential commitment to its citizens," said Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. "We must convey this moral message so that every citizen, every soldier and every parent knows the country will do everything to bring its soldiers back."
But that national priority is offset by fear that a dangerous precedent would be set.
Yossi Beilin, a member of Israel's parliament, or Knesset, criticized the terms of the deal, saying: "The principle must be live prisoners for living soldiers, bodies for the dead."
If groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas "understand that Israel is willing to pay the same price for its captive whether dead or alive, then they will make no effort to keep them alive," Beilin said. "This is a difficult thing to say, but it is in Israel's national and security interest to maintain the principle."
The missing soldiers' relatives acknowledged slim hopes that the men would return alive.
"We have lived in doubt for two years, and the time has come to deliver us from this uncertainty," said Regev's father, Zvi.
Israeli media reported that the soldiers, or their remains, would first be sent to Germany for identification before Kuntar or any of the other Lebanese prisoners are released. The German government has mediated the hostage swap talks for months, and the final stages of the process are expected to take up to two weeks.
Senior Hezbollah leader Hashim Saifeddin said in an interview with Al Manar that the deal "is proof that the word of the resistance is more honest and more powerful."
Kuntar's brother Bassam, in another television interview, called it "a historic achievement for the resistance."
Kuntar is expected to receive a hero's welcome in Lebanon, further antagonizing Israelis, for whom he is a symbol of monstrous brutality.
In 1979, the then-teenage Kuntar infiltrated Israel by sea along with three other members of the Palestine Liberation Front. Landing in the coastal city of Nahariya, the group killed an Israeli policeman and took Danny Haran and his 4-year-old daughter hostage. Haran's wife, Smadar, hid in a crawl space along with the couple's 2-year-old daughter.
Cornered by Israeli policemen on a beach, Kuntar fatally shot Danny Haran and beat his older child to death, according to witness reports. The mother survived but accidentally suffocated her daughter while trying to quiet the child's cries to avoid detection.
Two members of Kuntar's team were killed during the raid. Kuntar and another man were captured. The other attacker, Ahmed Abrass, was released in a 1985 deal in which more than 1,000 Arab prisoners were exchanged for three Israeli prisoners in Lebanon.
Kuntar received four consecutive life sentences.
Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Beirut contributed to this report.