Mideast: Why Israel Is Freeing Samir Kuntar

The prisoner looked like he hadn't slept in days; at the same time, he had never seemed so wired. Samir Kuntar, wearing his standard-issue brown jumpsuit, stepped up to the glass partition and picked up the phone. For weeks, Israeli talking heads had been speculating that Kuntar—a Lebanese militant convicted of three horrifying killings in 1979—was about to be released as part of a prisoner swap for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers. Kuntar, who learned Hebrew in prison, had been devouring the Israeli papers and been glued to the news for weeks. Later Sunday afternoon, the Israeli cabinet was scheduled to vote on whether to approve the exchange. After nearly 30 years in Israeli prisons, Kuntar could sometimes seem cynical and down. Yet he also had something of a manic streak, chain-smoking cigarettes and drinking cup after cup of coffee. Today his face was drawn, but his eyes were wide. To his attorney he seemed antsy, eager to get back to his cell and turn on the TV. Kuntar grilled the lawyer about the upcoming meeting, naming each Israeli cabinet minister, one by one, trying to divine how they would vote.

Finally, Kuntar heard the news: The cabinet had voted, 22 to 3, to release him and four other Hizbullah prisoners in exchange for the remains of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, the two Israeli soldiers who had been kidnapped in July 2006, touching off a retaliation against Hizbullah that the Israelis call the Second Lebanon War. Now Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared Regev and Goldwasser dead and pressed the cabinet to approve the exchange. The heads of Olmert's intelligence services had been pushing hard to keep Kuntar in jail. For a generation of Israelis, Kuntar's case has taken on a symbolism beyond the crime itself. Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah has long demanded Kuntar's release, and militants have been trying since the 1980s to secure it. (In 1985, the Palestinian Liberation Front hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro partly to gain Kuntar's release.) For Israelis, Kuntar has come to represent the prototypical prisoner with "blood on his hands"—a category to which hawkish Israelis, and even many dovish ones, have vowed never to grant a reprieve.

That's partly because the details of Kuntar's attack are so sickening that they give pause even to some of Israel's enemies. In the middle of an April night in 1979, then-16-year-old Kuntar and three other militants boarded a rubber dinghy along the southern Lebanese coast. The cell intended to motor down the shore and kidnap Israelis, according to Kuntar's lawyer. After stepping ashore in the Israeli border town of Nahariya, the group shot and killed an Israeli police officer and then broke into the home of the Haran family, snatching 28-year-old Danny Haran and his 4-year-old daughter, Einat. When a shootout erupted with police, Kuntar shot Danny Haran in front of his daughter and then smashed the girl's skull with a rifle butt. Meanwhile, Haran's wife, Smadar, had ducked with their 2-year-old daughter, Yael, into a crawl space above their bedroom ceiling. Desperate to keep the baby quiet, the mother accidentally smothered her daughter to death.

Smadar Haran survived and is still struggling to come to terms with her heartbreaking memories. "I will never forget the joy and the hatred in [the attackers'] voices as they swaggered about hunting for us, firing their guns and throwing grenades," she wrote in the Washington Post in 2003. "I knew that if Yael cried out, the terrorists would toss a grenade into the crawl space and we would be killed. So I kept my hand over her mouth, hoping she could breathe. As I lay there, I remembered my mother telling me how she had hidden from the Nazis during the Holocaust. 'This is just like what happened to my mother,' I thought." For the past 30 years Smadar Haran has lobbied the Israeli government to keep Kuntar locked up. Yet she seemed resigned to the news on Sunday after learning of the cabinet vote. "Samir Kuntar isn't, nor has he ever been, my private prisoner," she told reporters. "His fate must be decided now according to Israel's needs and ethical interests."

Israel's needs and ethical interests have always been a complex equation. Americans often find it difficult to understand how Israelis can trade hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for one or two Israelis, alive or dead. Kuntar's case points up how frustrating and difficult those calculations can be. Yet Israel has frequently made the deals; in 1985, Ahmad al-Abras, another militant from Kuntar's unit involved in the 1979 raid, was swapped in an exchange as one of more than 1,000 Arab prisoners traded for three Israelis. Even a civilian killing as grisly as the Haran murders, both Palestinians and Israelis acknowledge, doesn't exist in a vacuum; it must be seen also in the context of the ongoing regional clashes. Kuntar, says his lawyer, Elias Sabbagh, "sees himself as one of the participants in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." Even some Israelis point out that their nation's military is also frequently responsible for horrifying civilian deaths. "There are so many Israelis who have at least as much blood on their hands," says Yaron Ezrahi, a professor of political science at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, who supports a prisoner swap. "In our world, we find [Israeli] army actions apparently more excusable."

Kuntar is almost certain to be welcomed as a hero in Lebanon if the swap goes through. Sabbagh says that "all signals are pointing in the direction of a deal." He expects that Kuntar will be released within a week or two. Already some Lebanese have begun preparations for Kuntar's return, decorating a central square in the southern city of Sidon. At Israel's Haderim prison, Kuntar is waiting for the final word. In the meantime, his lawyer says the former militant is considering writing a book. Still, it is only after the celebrations in Lebanon have died down that the hard part will begin for the newly free Kuntar. Now 45, after nearly 30 years in prison, Kuntar "has no friends," says Sabbagh. "He's not religious at all. He has no family. He has no wife." By all accounts, he also has no remorse.