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.
As for Hizbollah, they staged a mighty pageant of leaping cavalry horses and massed bands and dabkeh dances as Lebanon’s Shia imams and their invited Sunni sheikhs and Druze notables sweated in their heavy robes throughout the day’s 37C temperatures on the border. But the Israelis, it seemed, were in no hurry. Well aware that Hizbollah had constructed a theatrical homecoming for both the living and the dead, they delayed the first 12 coffins for five hours and then the five living prisoners for another four hours. By this time, the camouflage-clad horse riders – including a long-haired Che Guevara lookalike – and their green-clothed mounts had long finished cantering and the dabkeh dancers had run out of breath and the bagpiper – yes, a real, moaning bagpiper – had run out of puff and even the white-scarved honour guard was wilting in the heat. Their discomfort was exquisite.
And there was a certain sleight of hand in all this. Mr Nasrallah had promised to retrieve the bodies of Palestinian “martyrs”, and they included the remains of 19-year-old Dalal Moghraby, which were supposedly stacked on the first lorry to cross the border yesterday. She was the girl who led 11 Palestinian and Lebanese gunmen in an attack on the Israeli coast road north of Tel Aviv. Cornered by the Lebanese army, she decided to fight it out. Thirty-six people died and a surviving videotape shows an Israeli agent, a certain Ehud Barak – yes, the man who is now Israel’s Defence Minister – firing shots into her body and dragging her across a road. Mr Barak was one of the Israeli cabinet members who voted for the return of her corpse yesterday. But the Palestinians, it turned out, did not want their dead returned to Lebanon. Dalal Moghraby’s mother Amina Ismail, for example, wished her remains to lie where she was buried in Israel – the land which she and millions of other refugees still regard as part of Palestine. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command said it wanted its dead “martyrs” to remain on “Palestinian land” as they would have wished, and asked Hizbollah to exclude them from the returning corpses. No such luck. For Hizbollah had other ideas and – with the agreement of the Israelis, of course – brought them back to the land of their exile.
History lay piled in layers yesterday: a long-ago murder in Israel and the release of the killer who now, courtesy of the Israeli prison system, speaks fluent Hebrew and English; the body of a Palestinian girl whose killings on the Tel Aviv coast road provoked Israel’s first invasion of Lebanon in 1978 (total dead about 2,000) as surely as Hizbollah’s capture of two soldiers prompted the bloodbath of Israel’s revenge (total dead about 1,200). But what would this matter to Mr Nasrallah in his hour of final triumph?
Once more, despite Hizbollah’s capture of west Beirut earlier this year and the gun battles that broke out across Lebanon (total dead 65), he has recaptured his old popularity as the only man with the only army to stand up to Israel’s legions. And there will most assuredly be another war. By the roadside south of Tyre yesterday, there was a huge poster of an Israeli warship struck by a Hizbollah missile in 2006, burning fiercely. “And more to come,” the caption announced, archly.
I found Hizbollah’s exhausted cavalry clopping north, their wilting riders – including Che – lolling in their saddles, the tired horses veering across the road. So this was what the war was all about.