Skip to main content

He stares out from a poster like a movie star. Clean-shaven but for his thick, dark mustache, with dark curly hair and piercing blue eyes, he poses on one jeans-clad knee, staring fiercely into the camera.

To Palestinians, and to Hezbollah, Samir Kuntar is a hero, a political prisoner who has spent 27 years in Israeli jails.

A Druze from a small village in south Lebanon, Mr. Kuntar is one of four Lebanese prisoners in Israeli prisons, and is by far the longest-serving of those on record. (Palestinian human-rights activists believe there is another Lebanese prisoner who has been held a year longer, but his detention has never been confirmed by Israeli authorities.) When Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah speaks now of freeing Lebanese prisoners from Israel, it is Mr. Kuntar he is seeking.

Story continues below advertisement

But Mr. Kuntar is a killer. In 1979, at the age of 17, he and three others, recruited by a Palestinian militant group fighting an Israeli incursion into Lebanon, launched a small boat from the tip of Lebanon's southern coast and came ashore at the northern Israeli town of Nahariya. There, they killed a police officer they encountered, before taking a family of four in an apartment hostage.

The mother, Smadar Haran, had managed to slip into a crawl space with her two-year-old daughter Yael and avoid detection. But as police began to arrive, the gunmen took her husband Danny and four-year-old daughter Einat down to the beach, where they shot Danny in front of his daughter and smashed in her skull with a rifle butt.

The tragedy didn't end there; Smadar's frantic efforts to keep her little one quiet resulted in Yael's death from suffocation.

A family destroyed, and two of the gunmen dead in the battle that followed, Mr. Kuntar was tried in a civilian court in Tel Aviv and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. Smadar Haran, who has since remarried and goes by the name Kaiser, sat through the entire trial, including gruesome pathology reports.

"I think the whole world can see under the mask who this [Mr. Nasrallah]person is, that he takes such a murder and makes it into a symbol for Hezbollah," said Ms. Kaiser, in an interview in a Herzliya hotel this week.

Through all the years since the attack, she has stayed in Nahariya, going back to university to become a child psychotherapist, remarrying, having two more children, refusing, she says, to allow herself to be defeated. This week, however, she and her husband Yaakov headed south for a few days respite from Katyusha rocket attacks on their small besieged town.

Though troubled by the civilians being hurt and killed on both sides of the border, she cannot swallow Mr. Kuntar's status among some as a hero. "You tell me your hero, and I'll tell you what your morals and values are," she said quietly.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Kuntar was nearly released in 2004, on the condition that Hezbollah provide information on Israeli air force navigator Ron Arad. He has been missing since 1986, when he was captured by a Shia militia after he ejected from his jet over Lebanon. There has never been official word of his death, and his body has never been returned. That information never came, so Mr. Kuntar stayed in prison.

But with two Israeli soldiers still being held captive by Hezbollah forces, and Mr. Kuntar's name cited in Hezbollah's speeches in Lebanon, the issue is bound to arise again.

"Experience tells me there have been many prisoner swaps, and at the end of the day there will be one [involving Kuntar]" said Buthaina Duqmaq, a lawyer and founder of the Mandela Institute in Ramallah, an advocacy group for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli institutions, who visits Mr. Kuntar regularly.

From her bag, she pulls out a half-dozen strings of worry beads -- some in the red-and-black colours of Palestine, some in the yellow-and-green of Hezbollah -- all made by women in prison as gifts for Mr. Kuntar.

"He is a symbol of the Arab prisoners' movement. He is very much liked . . . thousands of prisoners that have been inside Israeli jails talk about him. Even those who have not met him talk about him," she said.

His supporters -- and, among Palestinians, there are many -- say that he never intended to kill the family; that the intent was to take hostages to win the release of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in Israel. In a culture where landing in an Israeli prison is a badge of honour, he is nicknamed the "dean" of prisoners. He even has a website, put together by a younger brother who barely remembers him.

Story continues below advertisement

That he killed a four-year-old has not tarnished his image.

"I have never heard him repent. I have never heard him regret. To him, he joined a liberation movement and he is proud of that," Ms. Duqmaq said.

That lack of regret is one of the things that troubles his surviving victim most. Ms. Kaiser's lasting memory of the man who killed her family is of his laughter and V-for-victory signs in the courtroom.

"He never regretted it. He never said maybe he had second thoughts. To him, what he did was noble," she said, wondering aloud whether her insistence on public decorum -- even during the trial, she never cried in public -- has made her a less sympathetic victim.

Her main concern now, though, is not to betray any divide in opinion on a prisoner release. While her gut reaction is to keep Mr. Kuntar in prison, she also understands the deep need of the kidnapped soldiers' families to see their loved ones get out alive.

"It's not a private matter, and Samir Kuntar is not my private prisoner. It's a national issue, and the ministers and Prime Minister should deal with it, not me as a private person," she said.

Story continues below advertisement

Though she has been consulted by senior politicians before every prisoner release -- and was invited by Yitzhak Rabin to stand on the lawn of the White House at the signing of Oslo, an invitation she refused though she supported the accord -- she refuses to disclose what exactly she said to them.

"It should be in the best interest of what is laid on the table. [But]I think every intelligent person can understand what I feel."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Report an error
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter