A woman watches as Israeli soldiers carry the coffin of Ehud Goldwasser during his funeral in a military cemetery in Nahariya, northern Israel, on Thursday. ((Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press))

Thousands of mourners turned out Thursday in Israel for the burials of two of the country’s soldiers returned in a prisoner exchange with Lebanese guerrillas, laying to rest the young men whose plight had riveted the Jewish state for two years.

Across the border in Lebanon, the five militants freed as part of the swap prayed at the grave of Imad Mughniyeh, a slain Hezbollah military commander. They vowed to keep fighting Israel.

Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser's remains were returned by Hezbollah on Wednesday in exchange for five Lebanese prisoners and the remains of some 200 Arab fighters. The pair's 2006 capture in a cross-border raid by Hezbollah helped provoke a month-long war that left more than 1,000 dead and 1.5 million civilians displaced by fighting.

It's not clear whether the two soldiers died in captivity or during the raid in which they were seized.

Members of Israel’s defence force carried Regev's casket, draped with a blue and white Israeli flag, to the military cemetery in the northern city of Haifa.


Israeli soldiers carry the coffin of Eldad Regev to his grave during his funeral at a military cemetery in Haifa, northern Israel, on Thursday. ((Ariel Schalit/Associated Press))

An army 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.

Earlier in the day, mourners buried Goldwasser, who was 31 at the time of his capture.

Minister makes emotional pledge

His wooden coffin was lowered into the ground in the northern town of Nahariya by soldiers wearing the purple caps of an elite combat brigade.

His widow, Karnit Goldwasser, held on to her late husband's father as each wiped away tears.

'The state of Israel will make every possible and legitimate effort to bring you home.' —Ehud Barak

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, a former Israeli army chief, reassured soldiers at Goldwasser's funeral that they won't be left behind in battle.

"If, God forbid, any of you fall captive and even if the worst happens to any of you in the fight against terror groups or the envoys of the enemy, the state of Israel … will make every possible and legitimate effort … to bring you home," he said, his voice breaking.

Freeing Goldwasser and Regev became a national crusade in Israel, replete with bumper stickers, billboards and frequent radio and television ads.

Though officials had recently said the two soldiers were believed to be dead, there was no proof until their bodies were returned by Hezbollah on Wednesday.

Freed prisoners vow to fight on

In Lebanon, the freed prisoners received a heroes' welcome as they visited the grave of the slain Hezbollah military commander Mughniyeh. Supporters showered them with rice as they placed a wreath at the grave.

"We swear by God ... to continue on your same path and not to retreat until we achieve the same stature that God bestowed on you," said Samir Kantar, who had been the longest-held Lebanese prisoner in Israel until his release Wednesday.

Kantar was convicted in four deaths after a notorious 1979 attack in the northern coastal town of Nahariya. Witnesses said Kantar killed a father in front of his four-year-old daughter, and then killed the girl by crushing her skull with a rifle butt. Kantar said he didn't kill either one.

Others also died in the assault.

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. 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 controls the Gaza Strip, have held an Israeli soldier, Sgt. Gilad Schalit, for two years.

Schalit is believed to be alive, and Hamas is demanding the release of Palestinians in Israeli jails, hinting that it might free the captured soldier in exchange.

With files from the Associated Press