It seemed such a ghastly trade, flesh and blood for two boxes of bones. Many criticized it. Some could not bear to watch it. But if anything showed the difference between Israel and Hezbollah in last week's exchange of two dead Israeli soldiers for five live prisoners and 199 corpses, it was not the trade itself.
It was the reaction.
In Israel, where the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev arrived in black coffins, the mood was, according to reports, somber and mournful. Candles were lit. Prayers were recited. These two young soldiers, both students and reservists at the time, were captured in a cross-border raid two years ago by Hezbollah guerrillas, setting off a small war that ultimately left 160 Israelis and 1000 Lebanese dead.
Because the Israeli military vows to never leave a soldier on the battlefield, negotiations were held to get the two men back, even though most believed they were dead. Hezbollah, which captured the two men to use them as bargaining chips, held firm to its demand that Israel free several prisoners, including one named Samir Kuntar.
Not Kuntar, many Israelis said. He was serving life sentences for murdering three people in 1979: a police officer, a civilian named Danny Haran, and Haran's four year-old daughter, whose head Kuntar smashed on rocks and with his rifle butt. Haran's wife, hiding her other baby from Kuntar, covered her mouth to stop her whimpering. The child suffocated.
Kuntar's killings were regarded in Israel as the most brutal form of terrorism. The thought of freeing him went against every fiber of justice.
But last week, after almost 30 years behind bars, Kuntar was allowed to go by the Israeli authorities. And on Wednesday, he walked down a red carpet in Beirut and was kissed by the Hezbollah leader and cheered like a rock star.
"Samir! Samir!" the crowd reportedly yelled.
This for a man convicted of smashing a child's head into pieces.
You can take whatever side you like in the Israeli-Palestinian debate. You can argue who is entitled to land and statehood and borders.
But you cannot defend the frenzied lovefest that took place for Kuntar in Lebanon, as if he were some long-lost statesmen, instead of a common murderer who did the worst thing you can do: take the life of a child. What religion condones that? What holy book says that is a good thing? A banner in Beirut, according to the New York Times, read "G-d's Achievement Through Our Hands."
What G-d would have a child's murder on anyone's hands? How do people celebrate such a killer?
Is it because the little girl was Israeli and Israel is the enemy? Since when does a 4-year-old know of politics or war? Is it because Arab children get killed by Israelis? Yes, children undeniably die in bombings on both sides. But an Israeli soldier who deliberately smashed a child's head on a rock would be tried as a criminal, not cheered like a hero.
The total disregard for life of anyone who does not believe what Hezbollah believes stands in stark contrast to the value of life and even of its demise that Israel demonstrated in bringing those two bodies back. The families of Goldwasser and Regev were able to put their sons in the ground, to say goodbye, to end the wondering. That small act meant something to the government, which voted on the exchange. In the midst of the never-ending conflict Israel faces, that says an awful lot.
Meanwhile, here is what Kuntar said to the cheering crowd: "I return from Palestine only to go back to Palestine. I promise families in Palestine that we are coming back, me and my brothers in the resistance."
You'll note he never says the word "Israel." To men like Kuntar, Israel does not exist and should never exist. He and the terrorist group that freed him (and you can install Hezbollah into all the government seats you want, a terrorist group is still a terrorist group) want a world in which Israel has no place. The Jews should be driven into the sea.
With a philosophy like that, it may be hard to expect remorse. But if you can justify Hezbollah calling a national holiday to cheer home a child murderer, there is no talking to you. There is only mourning as there was over two coffins last week for a world in which such things and such thinking can take place.