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Thousands at burials of returned Israeli soldiers
Israeli soldiers carry the coffin, wrapped in an Israeli flag, of Ehud Goldwasser during his funeral in a military cemetery in Nahariya, northern Israel,Thursday, July 17, 2008. Thousands of mourners gathered on Thursday in the northern Israeli town of Nahariya to bury Goldwasser, the first of two soldiers returned in a prisoner exchange with Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas. - photo by Associated Press
    NAHARIYA, Israel — Thousands of mourners turned out Thursday for the burials of two Israeli soldiers returned in a prisoner exchange with Lebanese guerrillas, laying to rest the young men whose unknown fate had riveted the Jewish state for two years.
    Across the border in Lebanon, the five militants freed as part of the prisoner swap prayed at the grave of Imad Mughniyeh, a slain Hezbollah military commander. They vowed to keep fighting Israel.
    Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser’s remains were returned by Hezbollah Wednesday in exchange for five Lebanese prisoners and the remains of some 200 Arab fighters. The pair’s 2006 capture in a cross-border raid by Hezbollah sparked a monthlong war. It’s not clear whether they died in captivity or during the raid in which they were seized.
    Soldiers carried the casket of Eldad Regev, draped with the blue and white Israeli flag, to the military cemetery in the northern city of Haifa. A military rabbi chanted as Regev’s father leaned on another family member, who comforted him. Thousands of other mourners trailed behind. Regev was 26 when he was taken.
    Earlier in the day, mourners buried Goldwasser, who was 31 at the time of his capture.
    His wooden coffin was lowered into the ground in the northern town of Nahariya by soldiers wearing the purple caps of an elite brigade. His widow, Karnit Goldwasser, held on to her late husband’s father as each wiped away tears.
    In keeping with Jewish tradition, Goldwasser’s father Shlomo wore a shirt ripped at the front to signify mourning. Later, an Israeli military rabbi recited the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning.
    Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak, his voice breaking, reassured soldiers at Goldwasser’s funeral that they won’t be left behind in battle.
    ‘‘If God forbid any of you fall captive and even if the worst happens to any of you in the fight against terror groups or the envoys of the enemy, the state of Israel ... will make every possible and legitimate effort ... to bring you home,’’ he said.
    Karnit Goldwasser told mourners that the funeral took place a day before Goldwasser’s birthday.
    ‘‘One day before your birthday I ask, Toush, maybe time will allow the bleeding wounds to heal?’’ she said, referring to her late husband by his nickname. ‘‘Although I am without you, I will always be with you.’’
    During the past two years, she led a campaign to secure the release of the her husband and Regev, frequently traveling abroad and meeting with world leaders.
    The campaign made the young woman one of Israel’s most recognized faces and helped strengthen calls in Israel to conduct an exchange for the men’s release.
    Freeing Goldwasser and Regev became a national crusade in Israel, replete with bumper stickers, billboards and frequent radio and TV spots.
    Though officials had recently said the two soldiers were believed dead, there was no proof until their bodies were returned by Hezbollah Wednesday in black coffins.
    The swap closed a painful chapter from the war against Hezbollah and a somber air hung over Israel. Radios played sad music and newspapers published a picture of Karnit Goldwasser hugging Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as they touched the coffin.
    Olmert, whose handling of the war with Hezbollah was widely criticized, did not attend either funeral, although he was present at a ceremony marking the young’s men return a day earlier.
    Olmert is the subject of a widening corruption probe that poses a grave threat to his political survival. His defense team on Thursday was cross examining a key witness in the case, an American businessman who has testified that he illicitly gave Olmert hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash-stuffed envelopes.
    In Lebanon, the freed prisoners received a heroes’ welcome as they visited the grave of the slain Hezbollah military commander Mughniyeh. Supporters showered them with rice as they placed a wreaths at the grave.
    ‘‘We swear by God ... to continue on your same path and not to retreat until we achieve the same stature that God bestowed on you,’’ said Samir Kantar, who had been the longest-held Lebanese prisoner in Israel until his release Wednesday.
    He had been convicted of a notorious 1979 attack where he allegedly killed a father in front of his 4-year-old daughter, and then killed the girl by crushing her skull with a rifle butt. The girl’s 2-year-old sister was accidentally smothered by her mother, who held her hand over the toddler’s mouth to stifle her cries while the two hid in a crawl space. An Israeli policeman was also killed.
    Four tractor-trailers carrying the remains of nearly 200 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters headed to Beirut. Villagers showered the coffins with rice and rose petals.
    The lopsided prisoner swap — trading Kantar and the others for bodies — raised questions in Israel about its policy of bringing back its soldiers, dead or alive, at any price. Critics argued that Israel’s uneven exchanges with militant groups only encourage more kidnappings.
    The issue is particularly relevant because militants from the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, have held an Israeli soldier Sgt. Gilad Schalit for the past two years. Schalit is believed to be alive and Hamas is demanding the release of Palestinians in Israeli jails.

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