Families Cry and Ready to Start Living Life Again

Chabad House in Kiryat Motzkin happens to be located in the apartment building where the Regev family lives. At around 10:20 A.M. yesterday, a few minutes after the black coffins carrying Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were first seen on television, the local Chabad man walked over to the building's entrance and lit two yahrzeit candles, right beneath a large photo of Eldad that neighbors had hung, along with a banner reading, "Eldad, we do not forget and are waiting for the day you come home." Here perhaps is the most symbolic image of this day: Hope - and its shattering.

Several minutes earlier, at the very moment the coffins were shown on TV, several members of the extended family broke down as they waited, like everyone, in the plaza outside the building. The immediate family members, who wanted to be left alone with each other during the tense waiting period before the deal went through, asked even those relatives to leave for awhile. Hannah, the sister of Eldad's late mother, Tova Regev, collapsed in tears, while the other relatives sought to soothe her.

Several of them complained that the army had not arranged for a bench, water, and first aid to be available outside the building. It had evidently not occured to anyone that worried relatives would be waiting there as well. Some of the neighbors took out their frustration on Nasrallah: "We'll be waiting for you," "Kuntar should also have been returned in a coffin," and similar sentiments.

The sight of the coffins gave final, complete certainty to the assessment that had prevailed in any case. Prior to that point a calm routine had been maintained in the building plaza: a few dozen journalists and a handful of neighbors and relatives waited quietly for developments.

With the sight of the coffins a safety valve was released, prompting a series of occurences around the building: more and more yahrzeit candles were lit; neighbors took the opportunity to vent on camera their rage and frustration all at once about at the deal and a "corrupt prime minister"; and there was even a group of local 5-year-olds whose kindergarten teacher felt she should bring them to the house and light candles, and who did not rest until she entered the Regev's apartment with the kids to convey their condolences.

"At our kindergarten we take the children out a lot to all sorts of activities," the teacher, Ronit Shazar, said in explaining her seemingly odd choice for an outing for kindergarten children. "It's part of our routine, and we also visit the fallen soldier's monument on Memorial Day."

A little off to the side stood Michael Helfman, Tova Regev's brother, still dressed in a T-shirt emblazoned "Don't let indifference kill them." He spoke about Eldad's life, spent to a great extent in the shadow of his mother's battle with cancer. "Her illness was discovered shortly after Eldad's birth, and remained with her on and off until she died, when he was 18," Helfman said.

In a macabre bit of timing, the day before the prisoner exchange was the 10th anniversary of Tova Regev's death, and her son, Ofer, later revealed that it had not been an ordinary memorial service.

The neighbor across the hall, Mordechai Schtorper, sees the mother's illness as the main reason Eldad stopped wearing a skullcap. "It seemed as though he had been disappointed by something, but perhaps it was actually because of this that the family accepted his decision," Schtorper said.

The family remained in seclusion in their second-floor apartment. But about half an hour after the coffins were on Israeli soil, the door of Apt. 7 opened and Eldad's father, Zvi Regev, came out into the stairwell to speak on his cellphone, and maybe also to let off a little steam. He did not say much, only admitting in a single sentence that, "up to the last moment I was still hoping."

In his cellphone conversation, no doubt with some friend of the family, he sounded simultaneously weak and strong, at one moment saying, "I am helpless," and at another cursing "wicked" Nasrallah. All in all he appeared stronger and more encouraged that he had during a conversation I had with him a month or so ago, when talk had just begun about an impending deal.

For the other family members too, it seemed yesterday that receiving the final news, painful as it is, at least ended their agony of waiting amid uncertainty.

Suddenly Regev's cellphone rang. It was Shlomo Goldwasser, who had found the strength at that moment to pick up the phone and call his partner in calamity, to bolster and hearten him. Regev, patently moved, thanked Goldwasser, and did not neglect to "send kisses" to Miki and Karnit.

A few minutes later, Eldad's brother, Ofer, also comes out to the stairwell. He smokes a cigarette, and seems to be in a mood to vent his pent-up emotions from the nerve-wracking two-year wait. He tells of following intensely in recent weeks Internet sites and forums where a public debate was waged over the prisoner exchange deal. He says he got the impression that "overall, there was support for the deal," but wishes to ascertain through me, as a representative of the press, whether that impression is correct.

Within the family, he says, there were no qualms: "We thought the deal is right not just for us on a personal level, but also for the state. A country whose citizens set off [to war] and the country will do everything for them is a stronger country, not a weaker one."

Ofer Regev revealed that he and Eldad had discussed the 2004 prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah, in which Israel released 400 prisoners for Elhanan Tennenbaum and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers killed at Har Dov in 2000: "We had quite a few political disagreements between us," he said. "I was more center-left, and Eldad, as is customary among the younger set, was more right-wing, but ultimately we both agreed then that the deal was right."