Yesterday was the last day of the 2006 Lebanon war, the final chapter of Israel’s folly and Hizbollah’s hubris, a grisly day of corpse-swapping and refrigerated body parts and coffin after bleak wooden coffin on trucks crossing the Israeli border, which left old Ali Ahmed al-Sfeir and his wife, Wahde, stooped and broken with grief. Ali had a grizzled grey beard and stood propped on a stick while Wahde held a grey-tinged photograph of a young man – her son Ahmed, born in 1970. “He was a martyr, but I do not know which lorry he will be on,” she said. In the slightly torn picture, he looked whey-faced, unsmiling, already dead.
That could not be said for Samir Kuntar – 28 years in an Israeli jail for the 1979 murder of an Israeli, his young daughter and a policeman. He arrived from Israel very much alive, clean shaven but sporting a neat moustache, overawed by the hundreds of Hizbollah supporters, a man used to solitary confinement who suddenly found himself idolised by a people he had not seen in almost three decades. His eyes moved around him, the eyes of a prisoner watching for trouble. He was Israel’s longest-held Lebanese prisoner; Hizbollah’s leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, had promised his release. And he had kept his word.
The coffins – newly hammered together in Tyre before the 200 Hizbollah, Amal militia and Palestinian bodies arrived from Israel – were soon bathed in the Lebanese flag and golden Hizbollah banners, drawn by a flower-encrusted truck towards Beirut. Wahde climbed on to a plastic chair, desperate to see the box containing her son’s skeleton. Old Ali pleaded to stand with her but she told him he was too old, so he stood, head bowed, amid the television reporters and young Hizbollah fighters, with tears in his eyes. Who knows if Ahmed was in one of the boxes?
But it was also a day of humiliation. Humiliation most of all for the Israelis. After launching their 2006 war to retrieve two of their captured soldiers, they killed more than a thousand Lebanese civilians, devastated Lebanon, lost 160 of their own – most of them soldiers – and ended up yesterday handing over 200 Arab corpses and five prisoners in return for the remains of the two missing soldiers and a box of body parts.
For the Americans who have supported the democratically elected Lebanese government of Fouad Siniora, it was a day of hopelessness. For Mr Siniora himself, along with the President and all the surviving ex-prime ministers and presidents of Lebanon, and the leader of the Druze community and the country’s MPs and Muslim religious leaders, and bishops and higher civil servants, and the heads of all the security services – along, of course, with the UN’s representative – were at Beirut airport to grovel before the five prisoners whom Hizbollah had freed from Israel. They were flown north by the Lebanese army’s own helicopters.