Samir Kuntar in an Israeli government photo during his time in prison in Israel.
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.
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.
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."
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)