Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Samir Kuntar is one of only two or three Lebanese prisoners still held by Israel, and Hizballah said its July 12 assault is aimed at winning his freedom.
The terrorists killed eight Israeli soldiers and seized Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, taking them back over the border. Their whereabouts and condition remain unknown.
The Shi'ite group dubbed the raid Operation True Promise (Al-Wa'ad Al-Sadeq), saying it was making good on an earlier pledge to continue to capture Israeli soldiers and use them to obtain the release of the remaining Lebanese in Israeli jails.
Since the raid, the conflict has escalated, with Israel launching an air assault on Lebanese infrastructure and Hizballah targets and Hizballah firing hundreds of missiles into Israel.
The fighting and loss of life have swung some attention away from the hostage issue, and Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in an address late last week that "the battle today is no longer a battle over prisoners or the exchange of prisoners."
Nonetheless, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said during a televised address to the nation Monday night that he kept photographs of Goldwasser and Regev - along with one of another soldier, Gilad Shalit, kidnapped by Hamas in a June raid across the Gaza-Israel frontier - on his desk as a daily reminder of his mission.
"We will do everything in our power to ensure their safe release and bring them back home," he said.
In past years, Israel has succeeded in winning freedom for captured soldiers, or the return of missing soldiers' remains, but only by negotiating exchanges involving large numbers of Arab prisoners.
In the most recent of these highly controversial swaps, in January 2004, Israel handed over more than 400 Lebanese and Palestinian detainees in return for one Israeli businessman and the bodies of three soldiers abducted along the Lebanon border in 2000.
That exchange left just two Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails - Kuntar and a man named Nasim Nesser. (Lebanon claims a third man, named as Yehya Sekaf, is also being held, although Israel denies this.)
Lebanese media refer to Kuntar as the "dean" of Lebanese prisoners in Israel. He has been in prison for 28 years, and Hizballah wants him out.
Although Kuntar was jailed for an attack launched by a Lebanon-based Palestinian terrorist group before Hizballah was even established, Hizballah depicts itself as the vanguard of the Islamic campaign against Israel and regards winning freedom for the prisoners a "sacred duty."
A website set up by family members says Kuntar was jailed "for killing several Israelis in a raid on northern Israel."
Israeli media and eyewitness accounts of the incident provide much more detail. Kuntar was one of a four-man group that crossed into Israel by sea, sent on the mission by the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), an affiliate of Yasser Arafat's PLO.
In the coastal town of Nahariya, the terrorists shot dead a policeman and forced their way into an apartment building, where they captured Danny Haran and his daughter, Einat, 4.
While the terrorists rampaged through the apartment, firing weapons and detonating grenades, Haran's wife Smadar hid in a crawlspace above the couple's bedroom together with their other daughter, two-year-old Yael, and a neighbor.
In an effort to prevent Yael from crying out and alerting the terrorists to their whereabouts, Smadar kept her hand over the child's mouth, and accidentally smothered her to death.
Meanwhile Kuntar and his group took Danny and Einat Haran 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," Smadar wrote later.
"Then he smashed my little girl's skull in against a rock with his rifle butt. That terrorist was Samir Kuntar."
Israeli police shot dead two of the terrorists. Kuntar and the remaining man were tried and imprisoned. The other man was released as part of a May 1985 prisoner exchange - 1,150 Arab terrorists for three Israeli prisoners-of-war held in Lebanon - but Kuntar was not included in the deal.
Several months later, the PLF seized the Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise ship, demanding that Israel release Kuntar, along with other Palestinian prisoners. The hijackers killed a wheelchair-bound American Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer.
Kuntar remains in jail and has been hailed as a hero among Israel's enemies. The Palestinian Authority last March announced it was giving the Lebanese-born prisoner honorary Palestinian citizenship.
Hizballah repeatedly has agitated for the release of Kuntar, and after the January 2004 prisoner exchange, vowed not to rest until it had done so.
Addressing a large Shi'ite gathering last February, Nasrallah declared: "We are working on making this year the year to free our brothers in Israeli detention - Samir Kantar and his friends."
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made it clear that Israel will not back down this time - but so has Nasrallah.
At a press conference in Beirut's southern suburbs last week, reported on Hizballah's website, he said of the Israelis: "What do they want us to do? Hand over the soldiers and apologize? What kind of world are they living in?"
Israelis remember the huge controversy sparked by the 2004 prisoner exchange, brokered by Germany.
An opinion poll by the Ma'ariv daily found the country split down the center - 44 percent of respondents favored the exchange while 43 percent were opposed.
As the debate raged, Ely Karmon of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism wrote that it would be a strategic mistake.
"Hizballah will be strengthened politically, psychologically and, in the final analysis, strategically, too. It will strengthen Hizballah inside Lebanon, in the Palestinian arena, and in the Muslim world, and thereby turn it into a model for admiration and imitation."
Rabbi David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, associated with the Jewish Conservative movement, commented on the "lopsided" prisoner exchange from a religious perspective.
After exploring the Jewish concept of "pidyon shvuyim" (the redemption of captives) and arguments by scholars about the value of life and the importance of ransoming those held captive, he concluded that "the public takes precedence over the individual, even if this endangers the individual."
"Exchanging hundreds or thousands of terrorists for one Israeli encourages kidnapping of Israelis, and frees hundreds or thousands of terrorists who will pick up their weapons and attack Israel," Golinkin said.
"In other words, it endangers the public and should not be done."
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