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The Shame of Lebanon

By July 18, 2008

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Samir Kuntar
Samir Kuntar in an Israeli government photo during his time in prison in Israel.
Twenty-nine years ago, Samir Kuntar, then 17, led a cell of four militants from South Lebanon to the northern Israeli resort town of Nassryiah, by boat and under the cover of night, to stage a raid on civilian homes, any civilians, capture a few and take them hostage back to Lebanon. Kuntar aimed to use the Israeli civilians as bargaining chips to secure the release of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The hostage-taking for just that purpose is a common practice in the Middle East, going back centuries. It's been a recurrent practice on the Israeli-Lebanese border going back decades.

Murdering a 4-year-old Girl

Kuntar's plan didn't go well. He lost two men. He and his accomplice, back on the beach with a 32-year-old Israeli and his 4-year-old daughter, had no way of escape. He shot the father in the back, in front of his daughter, and drowned him to make sure he was dead. Then he crushed the little girl's head either with the butt of his rifle or with a rock. He and his accomplice were shot several times before they were captured.

Several times in the last 29 years Palestinian factions, the Lebanese government and Hezbollah tried to win Kuntar's release. In 2006, Hezbollah ambushed an Israeli patrol along the Lebanese border, killed three Israeli soldiers and took two hostage, Sgt. First Class Ehud Goldwasser and Staff Sgt. Eldad Regev, again in an attempt to get Kuntar back. What Hezbollah got was a 34-day war with Israel that killed almost 1,200 Lebanese, most of them civilians, and 165 Israelis, including 43 civilians. No one outside of Hezbollah knew the fate of Goldwasser and Regev. Israel vowed to destroy hezbollah in that war. Instead, it blundered into another catastrophe that strengthened Hezbollah and showed the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's incompetence.

Ehud Olmert's Gambling

A weakened Olmert desperately needed a victory of some sort. He negotiated for the release of Goldwasser and Regev. As always, Hezbollah pressed for Kuntar, who was serving five life terms for murder. Earlier this month Olmert agreed to his release, along with that of four other Lebanese--the last Lebanese held in Israeli jails.

On Wednesday, the hand-over took place at the so-called Rosh Hanikra border crossing. The remains of Goldwasser and Regev were passed to Israeli authorities in two black coffins at 9 a.m. It took most of the day for the Israelis to positively identify the two two soldiers and inform their families. At about 5 p.m., Kuntar and the four Lebanese walked over to the Lebanese side. The remains of 199 Lebanese and Palestinians were also driven to the Lebanese side in 10 Red Cross trucks.

The story should end there, with perhaps some reflection about the day's solemnity, its utter sorrow for some, its reserved gratefulness, at most, for others. In Israel, anyway, the hand-over was occasion for heartbreak and the beginning of mourning in earnest for two soldiers whose fate had not been known until that moment at 9 a.m. when a Hezbollah official by the name of Wafiq Safa revealed it.

Gilad shalit and regev and goldwasser

A bumper sticker with the photos of the three captured Israeli soldiers Gilad Shalit (L), Eldad Regev (C) and Ehud Goldwasser (R). Shalit is a captive of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The late Regev and Goldwasser were Hezbollah captives until the return of their remains to Israel this week. (David Silverman/Getty Images).

On the Lebanese side, unfortunately, the story doesn't end there. It degrades into a display of shameless celebration, jingoism, defiance and utterly misplaced triumphalism. The Five former captives were dressed iN lebanese army fatigues, even though not one of them had been a soldier. Hezbollah draped them, and Kuntar especially, in its yellow and green flag and milked the occasion for every blare of propaganda, claiming it had defeated Israel once again (forcing Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 was Hezbollah's first victory, fighting Israel to a draw in 2006 counted as another in Arab eyes, and now this. Kuntar seemed a bit surprised by it all. He uttered a few words at a rally in southern Beirut, with Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah at his side in a rare public appearance by the Hezbollah leader. And the Lebanese government, most shamelessly of all, declared a national holiday.

Let me be precise here. The release of prisoners of war long held unjustly should occasion celebration, even a bit of triumphalism, maybe even a national holiday. But Samir Kuntar was no prisoner of war. He was no liberator or freedom fighter or whatever else the eye of the beholder might fairly judge him. He was no hero by any possible stretch of the imagination. He captured a father and his daughter, murdered both, and was the reason the father's other daughter was also killed--smothered to death by her terrorized mother, who tried to keep her quiet as they hid in their apartment. Samir Kuntar was tried and convicted in a court of law. He was, he is, a murderer. In his name, hundreds of others were terrorized and killed.

Lost Opportunities

Maybe Kuntar's release will be the beginning of something better between Israel and Lebanon. Maybe its political expediency is necessary in the perverse way of tactical calculations. Put that aside. It's irrelevant, as far as the reaction of Hezbollah and the Lebanese government is concerned. Whatever the political calculations, a celebration is not what was called for with Kuntar's release. Hezbollah and the Lebanese government would have showed themselves infinitely more noble and maybe even just had they wrapped the occasion not in the jingoism of yellow-and-green flags and triumphalist speeches and rallies, but with the kind of modesty that acknowledges the misery and untold suffering for thousands that led to this moment, and the kind of modesty that opens the door to more humane, and dare we say peaceful, possibilities in the months and years ahead.

That was not to be, Hezbollah gunned at the top of its collective lungs.

Let there be no illusions, either. I don't mean to downplay the Lebanese's very legitimate claim that Israeli incursions, invasions, occupations and raids have terrorized and obliterated lives by the tens of thousands since the late 1970s, or that when all is said and done, the suffering and injustice has been disproportionately borne by Lebanese civilians, and to a large extent Palestinian civilians. Yes, Palestinian and Hezbollah militancy and terrorism are also inexcusable and must be faced head-on.

But let's not fight the entire Arab-Israeli conflict through the events of Wednesday, and keep those events to their human essentials. Israel did. Hezbollah and Lebanon did not. As a native Lebanese, I'm embarrassed for my former country, and have never been so grateful for that word: former.

Other Reactions in Lebanon

I'm not alone, neither outside Lebaneon nor, I'm glad to see, within it. Many Lebanese recoiled in horror at Hezbollah's display, As Lebanese blogger Charles Malik wrote,

It is true: many Lebanese who committed horrific crimes during the civil war should be imprisoned. The murderers of Sabra, Shatila, Bhamdoun, Souk al Garb, Damour, Tell al Zaater, the wars of the camps, and more go unpunished. However, few of those civil war crimes were specifically identified. Individual A was never accused of being guilty of killing Victim B. Regarding Samir Qantar, the crime is evident. Qantar killed Israeli government personnel and civilians during a raid in the middle of a war. However, he also killed a four year old girl by smashing a rock into her head. There is no excuse on Earth to justify that action, and there is no way that I can ever say that this man is a hero. Any man willing to smash in the head of a 4 year old child with a rock should remain in prison for the rest of his life. My disgust has no words... My tears...
Malik also informs us that Hezbollah now plans to run Kuntar for Parliament. If that doesn't say it all: "Nothing would say more about Hezbollah's ethics than for them to nominate Qantar. The party claims moral legitimacy, but their actions defy their rhetorical claims."

regev and goldwasser

What Israel Got: Hezbollah members hand over the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Eldad Regev, 27, and Ehud Goldwasser, 32, who were captured by militants two years ago, to the Red Cross to be exchanged for Lebanese prisoners held by Israel on July 16, 2008 at the Naqoura border point with Israel. (Issam Kobeisy - Pool/Getty Images)

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July 19, 2008 at 3:20 pm
(1) mS says:

Of course no one will criticize Israel for holding hostage the bodies of hundreds of Arabs, for massacring hundreds of Arab prisoners or for the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians.

July 19, 2008 at 4:40 pm
(2) Pierre says:

mS I disagree, at least as far as this site is concerned: I’m an equal-opportunity critic and analyst. If anything, Israel probably gets more than its share of criticism. That too is fair: the moment a country (like Israel, like the United States) projects itself on a morally higher standard than others, its actions should be judged accordingly. The flip side of that is that Arabs and other Middle Eastern autocracies tend routinely to get a bye on reprehensible behavior toward their citizens, let alone those who (as in the Gulf states) aren’t citizens but keep their economies humming. Criticizing one country’s misdeeds doesn’t automatically equate to endorsing the misdeeds of another.

July 19, 2008 at 5:17 pm
(3) JC says:

How can we be 100% sure that Samir Kuntar murdered the 4-year-old Girl? You state that, “He crushed the little girl’s head either with the butt of his rifle or with a rock.” Which one is it? Did he kill the girl with the rock or the rifle butt? He denies that fact. I agree that if he did murder the girl in that way, then it is a terrible crime, however we all know of other incidents where the jewish army kill journalists and others and deny this fact and blame it on others. We can never be sure what actually happened. The story is told depending on which side you are on. I do not believe that your comments are impartial. I have studied forensic science and results depend on interpretation and opinion. Both sides can usually be argued. Eye wtneses can be unreliable.

July 19, 2008 at 5:58 pm
(4) Pierre says:

JC, the point about ultimately knowing whether Kuntar killed the girl with a rock or a rifle butt may be disputed. Kuntar’s terrorism may not. This is not an ambiguous case. He chose a civilian target. He took two civilians hostage, including a child. That by itself condemns him in my eyes as vile enough to have warranted a life term. So it forensically may be not clear what killed the two Israelis. An Israeli court ruled clearly enough who did it. Kuntar had defense lawyers who did their forensic job. We have to assume that they pulled the bullets out of the Israeli father’s body and figured out, with minor applications of CSI skills, what bullets came from what guns. The girl’s skull was crushed. Yes, she may have been shot in crossfire. But the evidence pointed at willful skull-crushing. (Incidentally, according to the Kuntar file the Israeli foreign ministry just released, Kuntar initially admitted to bludgeoning the girl to death–then recanted.)

It’s a stretch to suggest that the Israelis shot the man, crushed the girl’s skull, then turned all evidence against Kuntar at trial. They didn’t have to. Kuntar took the two hostage, for Jupiter’s sake! Does this hair-splitting not make you uncomfortable at all? For the nth time, I don’t dispute that the Israelis commit horrors, target journalists, civilians, the works. The fact that they do doesn’t excuse the other side or diminish its own horrific methods. Nor does it mean that in this clear case, a Palestinian thug attacked civilians in their home and caused the murder of a man and his two children. No matter how you re-slice the origins of the case and its disposition, there’s no way Kuntar comes out a hero worthy of celebration and Hezbollah hurrahs.

July 20, 2008 at 1:22 am
(5) JC says:

I think your response was good, however your comment, “An Israeli court ruled clearly enough who did it,” is not. The laws in courts are man made, and laws are made through politics. If the same case was tried in Lebanon I suspect that a different decision may have been made, (this assumption is based on my own speculation). Therefore just because a Jewish court judges him guilty, that does not mean that he would not be given a different verdict in another country. My second point is your comment “Incidentally, according to the Kuntar file the Israeli foreign ministry just released, Kuntar initially admitted to bludgeoning the girl to death–then recanted.” If a confession was provided was he tortured? (waterboarding, electrocution?) I personally do not believe there was a confession. This is a biased piece of evidence, of course you would expect the Jewish foreign ministry to back the story of the Jewish state since they are both the same entity. The IRA were regarded as terrorists, they killed women & children and now they are regarded as bone a fide politicians and have votes and seats in the house of commons UK. One mans terrorist, is onother mans freedom fighter. I personally think that kidnapping or killing people is wrong, but desperate people do desperate things. You have to go to the root of the problem to solve the problem. Samir Kuntar has spent 29 years in prison, so he has been punished “IF” he was guilty.

July 20, 2008 at 2:15 pm
(6) JC says:

I am a law graduate and studied forensic science as part of that course. You make various statements without citing your sources/references. I know that is how journalists operate, however this does not give the public the opportunity to check your sources/references. (This does not imply that your article(s) are in any way incorrect).

November 21, 2008 at 5:23 pm
(7) jason says:

i dont get it

May 26, 2010 at 8:06 am
(8) corrector says:

that’s not true, and ofcourse u’ll say that and deny the fact that isreal is the terrorist and is killing thousands and thousands of innocents. samir kuntar never did what is said in this article and the source is completely wrong

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