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Leaving Israel a different man Add to ...

In 1979, at the age of 16, Samir Kuntar led an armed team by boat from Lebanon to the seaside Israeli city of Nahariya to kill and kidnap Israelis. He was in a war against the Zionist state, but he knew almost nothing about the people or the country. The only Hebrew word he knew was shalom - peace - an irony that does not escape him today. That night he made an attack and was caught and convicted of killing a policeman, a second man and his six-year-old daughter.

Thirty years later - spent entirely in Israeli prisons - the 46-year-old man speaks fluent Hebrew without a trace of an accent. He reads Israeli authors, is up-to-date on Israeli pop culture and knows more about the Holocaust and Zionism than many Israelis.

On Wednesday, Israel released Mr. Kuntar as part of a prisoner exchange. It was a tough decision for the government because Mr. Kuntar had become an icon of terror and evil for Israeli society. Yet, before he left Israel for freedom he sent his collection of Israeli books to his home in Lebanon.

None of that would probably have been public were it not for a chance meeting between Mr. Kuntar and Chen Kotas-Bar, a Jewish Israeli journalist, in the prison library in January, 2004. Their short conversation ignited her interest - and his, she says - and the two met often after that. The result was two articles in the Maariv newspaper: one in 2005 and the other published yesterday. The articles reveal a man very different from the teenager who first arrived on Israeli shores.

"I was the first and only Jewish Israeli to meet with Kuntar who was not a prison, secret security or government official," said Ms. Kotas-Bar. They developed a bond of trust throughout the months and years. He gave her a reading list of Israeli books. She read them all. She told him about her father, a survivor of Auschwitz. He told her about his family and shared photos. She discovered a man thirsty to know everything about Israel and Israelis, his enemy. He began studying Hebrew from cigarette packs. "I compared the letters in Arabic with the Hebrew," he told her.

Later he did a BA in social sciences by correspondence at the Open University in Hebrew, focusing his studies on the Holocaust and the history of Zionism. He went on to study for an MA, but the security services did not allow him to complete it.

He told Ms. Kotas-Bar that he doesn't like sleeping. He prefers to read. But he also told her "sometimes I am jealous of my friends [two of the team]who were killed in the attack. It saved them a lot of suffering."

Mr. Kuntar left Lebanon as a Communist devoted to the Palestinian cause, which he saw in black and white. But the world has changed and so has he. The contrast between the ideologies he had when he left Lebanon and the knowledge he has gained over the years appears to have left him with many contradictions. On the one hand he says he doesn't regret making the attack, although he vociferously denies killing the six-year-old girl and calls her death a tragedy.

Yet he told Ms. Kotas-Bar that he now opposes attacks on civilians. "I believe today more in the path of Hezbollah, that the first priority is military targets," he said. "Otherwise, the circle [of violence]will not close."

Mr. Kuntar said that as part of his military training he was imbued with a hatred of Israel in order to create motivation to fight no matter the cost. "It's easier when things are black and white. ... You don't hesitate, you don't ask yourself a lot of questions. But when there are other colours you need to think hard."

He told Ms. Kotas-Bar that he wants peace and he implicitly expressed support for a two-state solution. "The solution is that the stronger side needs to compromise and you are the stronger side."

That side says it's now out to get him. The day after his release Israel's Yediot Aharonot newspaper reported that an unnamed Israeli official said that Israel planned to assassinate Mr. Kuntar.

To Ms. Kotas-Bar he said he knew he would have to hold some sort of public role for Hezbollah, which attained his freedom for him, and for his people. But what he longed for was to be alone in the home he bought on the beach in Beirut. "I want to have a key that I can go in and out whenever I want, to drink coffee on the balcony, smoke a cigarette, go down to swim in the sea."

Editor's note: Mr. Kuntar did a BA in social sciences by correspondence at the Open University in Hebrew. An earlier version of this story did not specify how he earned his degree

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