'We cut out newspapers to show you when you returned'
Olmert, Barak and Ashkenazi join families of soldiers at private ceremony after coffins handed over by Hezbollah.
The families of the two abducted Israeli reservists whose bodies were returned as part of a prisoner swap with Hezbollah held a private ceremony Wednesday night at an army base in the north, where the coffins of the two had been delivered.
The ceremony was quiet, intimate, brief and emotional. The families of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were abducted by Hezbollah in July 2006, were joined by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi and his predecessor Dan Halutz. The latter led the army during the 2006 war triggered by the abduction.
The officials visited each family as they said their farewells in separate tents at the base. A tearful Karnit Goldwasser, wife of Ehud, was embraced by Olmert as they stood alongside his coffin. As he hugged Ofer Regev, Eldad's brother, the two men wept together for several minutes. Barak also comforted the family members, and the two recited Kaddish, the mourner's prayer, with them.
Karnit's mother, reading a farewell letter to Ehud, recalled how they had taken photos at events and cut out items from the newspaper "to show you when you got home."
"Your love for Karnitush was cut short after so little time," she read. "We hoped that you would return on your own two feet and expand our family, but in the end we got you back in a coffin."
"If he knew how the whole world knew him now and he never wanted that," she continued. "Udi, I ask for forgiveness that your privacy was violated and your story is so public now."
Goldwasser's mother, Miki, said as she entered the tent containing her son's coffin, that her feelings were the same feelings experienced by any mother who lost her son. "I felt that all hope had been dashed. I was confronted with the reality and it was a hard reality. We are strong because the nation needs to be strong."
"After two years that have not been easy, this is the hardest moment," said Karnit's father, Omri Avni when he emerged from the house to talk to reporters shortly after the family was formally notified that the two bodies had been identified.
Zvi Regev, Eldad's father, found it difficult to take the news that his son's body had been identified, and his legs buckled as he entered the room containing Eldad's coffin.
After seeing his son's coffin on television as it was taken to the Israel-Lebanon border by Hezbollah, Goldwasser's father, Shlomo, said that he and his wife did not want to see their son's body because they prefered to remember him as he was.
The coffins were transferred to Israel from Lebanon Wednesday morning, dashing their families' hopes the two were still alive, two years after they were abducted by the Lebanese guerilla group Hezbollah in a cross-border raid.
Shlomo Goldwasser told Israel Radio that the fact that the two soldiers were not alive did not come as a surprise, but that being confronted with that reality was very difficult. He added that he was not angry with the IDF, but that he would like to know whether his son was killed during the July 2006 Hezbollah raid, or if he had died later in captivity.
Goldwasser also condemned the celebrations in Lebanon marking the return of four Hezbollah fighters and notorious Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar who were to be released from Israeli prisons and returned to Lebanon in exchange for Goldwasser and Regev in the prisoner exchange that began Wednesday morning. He added that he felt sorry for Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and for the Lebanese people.
Meanwhile, as the coffins were displayed on television for the first time Wednesday morning, some 50 mourners gathered at the Regev family home began sobbing and calling for revenge.
"Nasrallah, you will pay," several of the mourners vowed.
The coffins were transferred to the Lebanese border, en route to Israel, as part of a prisoner exchange, which began Wednesday morning and was expected to continue well into the evening.
Waiting for the Israel Defense Forces officials to bring the coffin of his son, Zvi Regev, father of Eldad Regev, told reporters: "A two-year chapter is over. The wait for Udi and Eldad was great... I want to thank the Israeli public, the media and everyone who was involved, for doing everything possible. Thank you all."
Regev's father: TV footage of coffins was unbearable
Asked about the television footage showing the two coffins, Regev said it was unbearable to watch. "It was a very hard thing to watch - the placing of one coffin on the ground, and then of another. It was horrible. I Asked that the television be switched off, I just couldn't see it," he said.
"We did the best we could to bring Udi and Eldad home, even in this condition. All this while, we've been hoping that Udi and Eldad are alive. That they will come back and we will be able to embrace them. Last night we still hoped for a miracle, but now it's very hard for me to express what I just saw."
A large, framed photograph of Eldad hung at the entrance to his father's house in Kiryat Motzkin, a coastal town an hour south of the Lebanese border. On the upper left hand side appeared the message, "Eldad, we haven't forgotten, and we're waiting for the day you return home."
Regev's aunt sank to the ground when she saw the coffins on a small TV hooked up outside the soldier's father's house. Some 50 friends, neighbors and relatives who had gathered there sobbed and rocked back and forth in prayer.
The family's next door neighbor, Simona Adda, 68, said her children had grown up with Regev. "It's the saddest day for Israel. They kept us waiting until the last second to learn the fate of our sons," she said, then burst out crying. Other people in the crowd criticized Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, saying the soldiers died for nothing, and vowed revenge against Nasrallah. Some mourners also yelled that Israel should have returned Kuntar to Lebanon in coffin too.
Meanwhile, the Goldwasser family also watched the images of the coffins emerging from a Hezbollah vehicle at the family home in Nahariya. Ehud Goldwasser's parents, wife and friends declined to comment on the events, but several people were seen exiting the house in tears.
Noam Shalit: I feel both relief and sadness
The father of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Palestinian militants several weeks before Regev and Goldwasser were kidnapped and remains in captivity in Gaza, expressed his sympathies for the soldier's families.
"I want to express my support for the families and I respect their request for privacy at this time. It is a feeling of relief on the one hand, but great sadness on the other. I will visit them and offer my support," Noam Shalit told Haaretz.
Shortly before the bodies were transferred, Shlomo Lindau, a reservist who served with Regev and Goldwasser, said: "After two years of expectations, faith and hope, this picture doesn't work for me. I expected another picture. I believed I would get to see them and talk to them.
"We served in the reserves with Eldad and Udi and we will continue to serve in the reserves because when there are people like these, we must protect this state," he said. "Eldad and Udi will remain with us, if not in body then in spirit."
Earlier Wednesday, Ehud Goldwasser's mother Miki said "today it is over," adding that she still believed that the boys were alive, moments before the image of their coffins dashed those hopes.
Shlomo Goldwasser, Ehud's father, spoke to reporters Wednesday morning prior to the revelation of the coffins, fatigue and tension apparent on his face. He described his feelings as having reached "the end of a race."
"Now we are waiting," he said. "There is a lot of tension and anticipation. I think that after this day, we will try to get back into our daily routine."
"During the course of these two years," he went on to say, "we have done everything possible to bring them home and finally they are arriving. We used every tool we had at our disposal, including the media."
Goldwasser added that for two years he had become "the father of an abducted soldier. Whatever happens, I will always be Udi's father and Miki will always be his mother." He went on to say that he hoped that on this day, the thoughts on the Lebanese side were turned to how much he had sacrificed, and how much they are receiving.
Eyal Regev, the brother of Eldad Regev said Wednesday morning that "today we are all waiting and hurting, over the price that the state of Israel has been forced to pay. On the other hand, we are proud of Israel for knowing to bring back hostages and understanding our struggle and pain."
According to Regev, the families fully understand the difficulty in this deal, which has seen the release of four Hezbollah fighters tried in Israel for murder among other heinous crimes, and Kuntar, who has been serving multiple life sentences in Israel for murdering three Israelis in a 1979 terror attack.
"I think that Israel should be proud of its decision to return Eldad and Ehud, it is a moral obligation to IDF reservists," Regev added.