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.
Israel's defense minister told soldiers and civilians at the graveside of Ehud Goldwasser, 31, that Israel was "heartbroken" and had "paid a heavy price" to bring home the bodies by freeing five Lebanese prisoners and the remains of some 200 Arab fighters.
In its exchange with Hezbollah, Israel freed Samir Kantar, a Lebanese militant convicted of killing a father in front of his 4-year-old daughter, and then killing her by crushing her skull with a rifle butt.
The Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, quoting a senior Israeli source, said Israel now regarded Kantar as "worthy of death."
"Israel will find him and kill him," the source said.
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.
During Goldwasser's burial, his wooden coffin was lowered into the ground in Nahariya by soldiers wearing the purple caps of an elite brigade. His widower, Karnit Goldwasser, held on to her late husband's father as each wiped away tears.
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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.
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.
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.
The prisoner exchange with Hezbollah closed a painful chapter from Israel's 2006 war against the militant group, which began after Lebanese guerrillas kidnapped the two soldiers in a cross-border raid.
A somber air hung over Israel Thursday. Radios played soft, subdued music and newspapers published a picture of Karnit Goldwasser hugging Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as they touched the coffin.
Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak, his voice breaking, told soldiers at the funeral that if "the worst will happen to any of you," Israel will "will make every possible and legitimate effort" to bring them home.
In Lebanon, four tractor-trailers carrying the remains of nearly 200 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters were headed to Beirut on Thursday. Villagers showered the coffins with rice and rose petals.
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.
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, has held an Israeli soldier Sgt. Gilad Schalit for the past two years.
Schalit is believed to be alive. Hamas is demanding the release of Palestinians in Israeli jails.
Hamas officials said the swap with Hezbollah proved that Israel only understands the language of kidnapping and violence.
Israel has only released a few dozen Palestinians in a goodwill gesture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, many with only months left to serve on their sentences.
There are some 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, and their release is one of the most emotionally charged issues for Palestinians.
Later on Thursday, hundreds of people welcomed Kantar in his hometown of Abey, a mountain hamlet 10 miles south of Beirut.
"This time yesterday I was in the hands of the enemy. But at this moment, I am yearning more than before to confront them," Kantar said of Israel.
Israeli government spokesman David Baker denounced the celebrations in Lebanon, particularly the warm welcome given to Kantar.
"Kantar is a brutal child murderer who instead of being rejected upon his return was cheered and greeted like a rock star, and this is disgusting and deplorable," Baker said in a statement.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.