President Shimon Peres met Tuesday with the families of the victims of the Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar, who is slated to be released on Wednesday as part of the prisoner swap with Hezbollah scheduled for Wednesday.
Earlier Tuesday, the exchange deal was ratified in a cabinet vote by 22-3. Peres later pardoned Kuntar in preparation for his transfer to Lebanon in Wednesday's exchange.
Israel is to release four Hezbollah fighters jailed in Israel alongside Kuntar, who was jailed in 1979 for the murders of four Israelis. In exchange, Hezbollah will return two Israel Defense Forces reservists captured by the Lebanese militia in July 2006, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. The condition of the two are a mystery, although a majority of reports surmise that the two were killed at the time of their capture.
Peres met with the family of the policeman Eliyahu Shahar and with Nina Keren, the mother of Danny Haran, who were murdered by Kuntar in Nahariya in 1979.
"The president told me he could not look in the eyes of the parents of [abducted IDF soldiers Ehud] Goldwasser and [Eldad] Regev," said Ronen Shahar, the brother of the slain policeman. "Let him look me in the eyes. What's the difference? It's difficult for me as well. I get up one morning and they tell me: 'Listen, the man who killed your brother is going home, to live like a king.'"
Haran's mother said the president warmly welcomed them and explained he had to pardon Kuntar.
"He was very kind and spoke nicely," she said. "But I still don't understand how you can pardon him. This hurts me the most."
Earlier Tuesday, Peres said that "this is a difficult day, but we have to take a moral stance and bring back whatever we can. The soldiers were sent there on a mission, and we have a responsibility to the families." Similarly, Peres said, the families who oppose the deal must be given the opportunity to voice their opinion.
After the cabinet ratified the prisoner exchange deal Tuesday, Ehud Goldwasser's mother welcomed the move, describing it as "a victory for Israel," over Hezbollah.
"This decision is a victory for the people of Israel, not just the families," said Miki Goldwasser, the mother of Ehud Goldwasser. "This is a victory over Hezbollah and over Nasrallah."
"There is no doubt that there is a kind of relief in all of this," said Miki Goldwasser. "I am not denying that there were those us of who felt tension over the government debate today. We calmed down when we heard about the final approval."
"I think that this feeling of relief is not felt just by us, the families of the abductees, but by the whole nation. We are still waiting and hoping that this feeling of relief will also be felt by the Shalit family as soon as possible."
Regarding a report in a Lebanese newspaper that one of the soldiers had been killed during the abduction, and the condition of the second was unknown, Goldwasser dismissed this as "part of the psychological warfare that Hezbollah and Nasrallah also tried to use in the first prisoner exchange."
She said that the working assumption of the families was that their sons were still alive, but if they are dead, it was because they had been murdered. She stressed that she believes Hezbollah would have looked after the health of the two soldiers and made sure that they stayed alive.
Zvi Regev, Eldad's father, also said he was holding out hope his son might still be alive.
"I really hope this nightmare will end tomorrow," he told Israel Radio. "We will accept whatever will be. We need to be strong and accept it for better or for worse."
The Goldwasser and Regev families renewed their campaign this week to convince cabinet ministers to support the prisoner swap with Hezbollah, fearing that despite the cabinet's approval of the deal on June 29, last-minute problems might pop up. In particular, the families worried that criticism of Hezbollah's report on missing Israeli navigator Ron Arad, and the fact that his fate remains a mystery, could provide an excuse for cancelling the deal. Israel had demanded the Arad report as part of the exchange deal, but government officials have said it would not be a deal-breaker.
Prior to the deliberations, President Shimon Peres urged the cabinet to approve the deal calling it Israel's "moral and spiritual duty" to bring home its sons.
On Tuesday evening, Peres was expected to sign a document pardoning Samir Kuntar, the Lebanse terrorist who killed a Nahariya family in a brutal 1979 attack.
"It's not a happy choice," Peres said before the Cabinet vote. "On one hand, we have the most terrible murderer. On the other hand, we have our commitment to our boys who were sent to fight for their country. It is our moral duty and our heartfelt wish to see them come back."
Deputy Prime Minister and Trade Minister Eli Yishai had also called on his cabinet colleagues to ratify the deal, regardless of the report on Arad.
"The cabinet must ratify the prisoner exchange deal today and bring our sons home," said Yishai, who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, prior to the cabinet vote.
"I am sure that if it were possible to return Ron Arad, the Goldwasser and Regev families would not prevent it. The deal today will not endanger the well-being of Gilad Shalit, and it must be approved immediately," he said.
Following the vote, Yishai said that the ratification has been made with a "heavy heart," though he added that it was "less costly" than other deals Israel has approved.
Housing and Construction Minister Ze'ev Boim was one of the three Cabinet members to oppose the deal. He said he was afraid the swap would make it harder for Israel to win the release of a third Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, held by Gaza militants and believed to be alive.
"No one should be surprised if Hamas will now raise the price for freeing [Shalit]," Boim said.
Minister Isaac Herzog called the decision to swap Kuntar "tormenting," adding: "Clearly we opted for a resolution that fulfills our prime rule since the creation of the state of Israel, and this is to bring back our sons home, despite the toll."
PFLP in Syria: Leave fighters' bodies on Palestinian land
A radical Palestinian faction said Tuesday it does not want its fighters' bodies repatriated as part of the prisoner swap.
Israel is expected to return the bodies of about 200 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters Wednesday, in addition to the five Lebanese prisoners, in exchange for Regev and Goldwasser.
It has not revealed the identities of the militants whose bodies will be returned.
On Tuesday, the Syria-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command said it wants its members' bodies to remain on Palestinian land, as the fighters would have wished.
Spokesman Anwar Raja tells The Associated Press the PFLP-GC has urged Hezbollah to exclude the remains of its fighters from the swap. He did not elaborate.
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