I was curious why there is so little news specific to the Hezbollah demands for the release of prisoners. Who are these men and why were they put in prison?
After a few days of reading articles and vague but related stories, I found a fascinating first-person account in the Washington Post of the man that the Hezbollah want released. It seems the Hezbollah militants crossed into Israel unprovoked and kidnapped Israeli soldiers to force the release of Samir Kuntar:
Kuntar’s name is all but unknown to the world. But I know it well. Because almost a quarter of a century ago, Kuntar murdered my family.
It was a murder of unimaginable cruelty, crueler even than the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, the American tourist who was shot on the Achille Lauro and dumped overboard in his wheelchair. Kuntar’s mission against my family, which never made world headlines, was also masterminded by Abu Abbas.
Around midnight, we were asleep in our apartment when four terrorists, sent by Abu Abbas from Lebanon, landed in a rubber boat on the beach two blocks away. Gunfire and exploding grenades awakened us as the terrorists burst into our building. They had already killed a police officer. As they charged up to the floor above ours, I opened the door to our apartment. In the moment before the hall light went off, they turned and saw me.
As police began to arrive, the terrorists took Danny and Einat down to the beach. There, according to eyewitnesses, one of them shot Danny in front of Einat so that his death would be the last sight she would ever see. Then he smashed my little girl’s skull in against a rock with his rifle butt. That terrorist was Samir Kuntar.
A chilling story that makes you wonder if buildings in these areas will go back to keeps and castles with watchtowers, like those built in Biblical times.
Kamir was 16 years old at the time and was sent to prison. Today, after twenty-seven years, he is the longest-held Lebanese prisoner. The Washington Post explains why:
Even after my family was murdered, I never dreamed of taking revenge on any Arab. But I am determined that Samir Kuntar should never be released from prison. In 1984, I had to fight my own government not to release him as part of an exchange for several Israeli soldiers who were POWs in Lebanon. I understood, of course, that the families of those POWs would gladly have agreed to the release of an Arab terrorist to get their sons back. But I told Yitzhak Rabin, then defense minister, that the blood of my family was as red as that of the POWs. Israel had always taken a position of refusing to negotiate with terrorists. If they were going to make an exception, let it be for a terrorist who was not as cruel as Kuntar. “Your job is not to be emotional,” I told Rabin, “but to act rationally.” And he did.
So Kuntar remains in prison.
Incidentally, it is interesting to note that Ahmad Jubarah was imprisoned for killing 13 people in Jerusalem in 1975 and was the longest-held Palestinian until he was released in 2003. But his release was not only noteworthy because of the length of detention and nature of his conviction, but because of what he said to the press. According to the Jerusalem Post:
In a bizarre twist, he made a public call for a leader of the Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon to free Israeli prisoners. “I call on Sheik Nasrallah to release all Israeli prisoners, because I know what it feels like to be in prison,'” he said.
Back to Samir Kuntar, he has his own website that paints a very different picture of events that led to his arrest:
Israeli troops arrested Kuntar, a resident of the village of Abey, Aley, on April 22, 1979 for his involvement in an attack on an Israeli patrol at Nahariya that cost the lives of six soldiers from the Hebrew State.
That does not sound like the women and children story above. Does this significantly different perspective of the same night reflect a policy that all Israeli civilians, even children, are considered by the Hizbullah to be enemy combatants?
I was a bit surprised also to find on the Samir Kuntar website that he reports that he is in excellent health, and that he has married an Arab-Israeli woman and “registered in one of the colleges in Tel Aviv”. Strange stuff for a site that also demands his release. Jubarah made it seem like prison is terrible and no-one should suffer, but Kumar is telling a story that he is getting along quite well. His site says he achieved his college degree while in prison studying “The Contradiction of Security and Democracy in Israeli” and he hopes to complete a graduate degree next. In that context, perhaps even more interesting is a picture of him smiling and embracing fellow prisoner Marwan Barghouthi (convicted by Israel for leading Fatah’s Tanzim and al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade — suicide bombers).
Barghouti has said he considers any Israeli in the West Bank and Gaza a legitimate target for attack. In August 2001, Barghouti said Palestinians must use violence. He has also been critical of the Palestinian effort to make peace with Israel.
Even more than Barghouti, though, Kuntar’s long-term detention seems to have made him a powerful icon in anti-Israel rhetoric. Here’s an excerpt from a rally last February that was posted in the news section of the Kuntar website:
“We are working on making this year the year to free our brothers in Israeli detention. Samir Kantar and his friends, which will in turn pave way to free our Syrian and Jordanian brothers detained in Israeli prisons,” Nasrallah said.
Other prisoners are sometimes mentioned by Nasrallah, like a man named Nissim who emigrated from Lebanon to Israel but was arrested and imprisoned for providing information about potential targets and IDF troop movements and plans to Hezbollah. However, I believe it is really Kuntar’s name that puts context to the story of why Hezbollah recently crossed into Israel to take soldiers hostage again, like they did in October of 2000 after Israel had withdrawn its troops from southern Lebanon. Although in that case, Israel did try to negotiate trading more than 400 Arabs and Palestinians in 2004 for three bodies of soldiers killed by Hezbollah and a captured Israeli civilian. The terms were negotiated under intense threats from Hizbullah:
Hizbullah’s leaders have warned that if the negotiations collapse, it will seek to kidnap more Israeli soldiers.
“If this deal doesn’t go through, definitely Hezbollah will try to capture more Israeli soldiers, and they might succeed,” says a source close to Hizbullah’s leadership. “Israel should think about the consequences of not pushing ahead with the swap. They can’t protect their soldiers 24 hours a day.”
The deadlock centers on Samir [Ku]ntar
If nothing else, it seems clear that the Hezbollah have not reduced their threats and attacks since the Israelis unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon. Kuntar might be the pretext, but his release is unlikely to be the only motive. In fact, it’s hard to know what motivated Nasrallah since he played into the Israeli’s hand and gave them the justification they have wanted to eliminate Hezbollah’s strategic capabilities. Perhaps it had more to do with Iran’s need to divert attention from their nuclear program (past the deadline and during the G8) than anything to directly benefit Lebanon or even the Palestinians.
This log entry has become too long, I fear, so I’ll end it with a human rights website, which has first-person testimony by a Palestinian man about the recent Israeli incursion into Gaza to compare and contrast with the story I started with.