The man Hezbollah wants
A long-ago horror is linked to the current war
It happened more than a quarter century ago, yet the horror of that spring night back in 1979 is seared in the memory of Smadar Haran Kaiser and many Israelis of her generation. Neither she, nor they, will ever forget how her husband and two young daughters were killed when four Arab terrorists from Lebanon raided their apartment in the coastal city of Nahariya.
What happened that night--including how Kaiser accidentally suffocated her 2-year-old daughter while trying to hide her from the terrorists--is more than painful history with echoes of the Holocaust; it is part of the back story for the current war between Israel and Hezbollah. The war is about many things: the security of Israel, the future of a democratic Lebanon, the reach of Iranian power--and, starkly, the fate of one man, Samir Kuntar, 44, who sits in an Israeli prison. He was one of the terrorists that night, and Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to win his freedom.
It was 2 a.m. on April 22, 1979, when the terrorist team dispatched by a radical Palestinian faction came ashore in a small boat, hunting for Israelis to kidnap. After killing a policeman, they burst into the apartment building on 16 Jabotinsky Street. Hearing the commotion, Kaiser grabbed her daughter Yael and hid in a small storage space above the bedroom. But there wasn't room for her husband, Danny Haran, 28, and 4-year-old Einat, who couldn't flee before the terrorists, led by 16-year-old Kuntar, broke into the apartment. "I'll never forget his voice," Kaiser recalled last week in an interview with U.S. News. "The voice of a man filled with hatred, thirsty for blood; of someone in the ecstasy of murder and not because he knew you. Just because you are Israeli."
Bargaining chips. While the terrorists abducted Danny and Einat, Kaiser held her hand firmly over little Yael's mouth to muffle her crying. When she took her hand away, her daughter was dead. At the beach, minutes later, a gun battle broke out between the terrorists and the Israeli security forces. Danny and Einat were killed. Kaiser says that Kuntar used them as human shields before shooting Danny and then smashing her daughter's skull on a rock with his rifle butt. Kuntar, who denies killing Einat, was injured, caught, and sentenced to 542 years in prison.
Fast-forward to July 12, 2006. Crossing the recognized border with Israel, Hezbollah fighters from southern Lebanon attack an Israeli military post, killing eight soldiers and kidnapping two--bargaining chips to trade for Kuntar and two other Lebanese prisoners regarded as heroes by many Arabs. For Israelis, of course, Kuntar is a murderer with the blood of two little girls and their father on his hands. "My mother's whole family was killed in the Holocaust," says Kaiser. "There are a lot of painful parallels here."
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asserts that he will not negotiate for the captured soldiers, demanding their unconditional release. But it may not be so straightforward, says lawyer Ory Slonim, who has advised past Israeli defense ministers about prisoner swaps. Israel has never won the return of captured soldiers except through negotiated prisoner exchanges. Sometimes, though, it has set its own terms; Maj. Gen. (Reserve) Uzi Dayan, a former commander of an elite unit, says he led soldiers who captured five Syrian generals in Lebanon in June 1972 in order to gain the release of three Israeli pilots in a Damascus jail. On Tuesday, Israeli commandoes raided a Hezbollah hospital in Baalbek, Lebanon, apparently in an unsuccessful attempt to capture a high-ranking Hezbollah official to use as an alternative to dealing on Kuntar.
Kuntar's release has been the goal of several previous kidnapping attempts. In 1985, the same Palestinian terrorist group behind the 1979 raid hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro (in the process, killing an elderly Jewish-American named Leon Klinghoffer) in an unsuccessful effort to free 50 Arab prisoners, including Kuntar. That same year, a prisoner exchange known as the Jibril Deal won the release of Ahmed al-Abrass, the only other surviving member of Kuntar's terror team.
Strangely, Hezbollah's Nasrallah, the leader of a religious Shiite organization supported by Iran and Syria, has championed Kuntar, a Druze who supports a secular Lebanon. In prison, Kuntar has become fluent in Hebrew, earned a college degree though correspondence courses, and has said that, after taking a course on the Holocaust, he now understands Jewish pain. He has said that he regrets Einat's death (which he blames, though, on Israeli bullets).
Nasrallah has declared in speeches his goal of freeing Kuntar by capturing Israeli soldiers. In 2000, he kept to his word and captured three. But despite stubborn negotiations, he was unable to release Kuntar because he did not provide the information Israel demanded on the long-missing Israeli pilot, Lt. Col. Ron Arad. Last November, three Hezbollah fighters were killed again trying to kidnap Israeli soldiers. Hezbollah officials have in recent days claimed they didn't intend to ignite a war with their cross-border raid, only to improve their bargaining for the release of prisoners.
Even talking about a deal for someone like Kuntar conjures up powerful emotions among Israelis. Kaiser, who has remarried and still lives in Nahariya, wants Kuntar to die in his jail cell--which puts her at odds with the families of captured soldiers. "I would have spoken with the devil to get my son back," said Haim Avraham, whose son Benny was captured in 2000 and returned in a coffin in 2004 as part of a prisoner exchange. On the issue of prisoner exchanges, Yair Goldwasser, brother of Ehud, one of the two soldiers in Hezbollah hands, says: "It's a political issue; it's not up to us."
A poll last week showed that 70 percent of Israelis would support some form of a prisoner exchange. And Dayan, who is advising the families, says it is important that an Israeli soldier know that "everything will be done to save him." But Kaiser is vigilant. "You don't compromise with terror," she says. "If you compromise with terror, you agree to live with it." That, sadly, is likely to remain a stark dilemma for Israel.
This story appears in the August 14, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.