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A painful price

The Baltimore Sun

The images were jarring: A young woman standing in the embrace of the prime minister of Israel, her outstretched hand placed atop the flag-draped coffin of her soldier husband. A 46-year-old man in fatigues, freed from an Israeli prison, standing proudly beside the leader of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and smiling.

Karnit Goldwasser will be a widow longer than she was a wife. Two years after her husband Ehud was abducted in a cross-border raid that started the summer 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon, the remains of First Sergeant Goldwasser were returned to her in a black box this week. Samir Kuntar, convicted at age 16 of the brutal 1979 slaying of an Israeli father and his 4-year-old daughter, was the longest-held Lebanese prisoner in Israel until his release this week and return to a joyous hero's welcome in Beirut.

Trading the remains of two dead soldiers for a notorious terrorist and four Hezbollah militants hardly seems a fair exchange. And it wasn't. The Israeli reservists, Sergeant Goldwasser and Staff Sgt. Eldad Regev, were kidnapped in an unprovoked raid and wounded. As weeks passed into months, their families learned little about their fate but feared the worst. Their fears were finally realized in a most insensitive way, with Hezbollah's roll-out of two coffins at the start of the prisoner exchange Wednesday.

In contrast, Mr. Kuntar's crime was a planned operation that terrorized a young Israeli family, leaving three of its members dead. Mr. Kuntar, very much alive, was received by Lebanon's top political leaders upon his return to Beirut. Although not a member of Hezbollah's branch of Islam, he is indebted to the organization for his release. Despite 30 years in prison, Mr. Kuntar remains young enough to participate in Hezbollah's operations, and he pledged to return to Palestine with his brothers in the resistance.

While Israelis grieved with the families of the two soldiers, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah celebrated the prisoners' homecoming - and the group's robust political influence in fractious Lebanon.

It was an unfair exchange but not unexpected, even with the notoriety of Mr. Kuntar's heinous crime. But in Israel, military service is a rite of passage as well as a matter of national security. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert summed up the country's duty to its soldiers: "A foreigner wouldn't understand what every Israeli knows well - the mutual responsibility and the obligation to ensure the welfare of each and every one of our soldiers. It is the glue that holds our society together and enables us to survive while surrounded by enemies and terror organizations."

Americans should be able to appreciate Israel's bond to its soldiers. The U.S. military holds a similar creed, "leave no man behind," and Americans in uniform, when called upon, have gone the distance for their comrades. But Americans haven't had to face the choices Israelis are often asked to make because of the enemies at their borders. Often there is no good choice, only heartbreaking compromise.

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