JERUSALEM — Israeli President Shimon Peres pardoned one of the most notorious murderers in Israel's prisons on Tuesday, clearing the way for an exchange that will swap Samir Kuntar for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers whose capture by the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah militia sparked a 34-day war in 2006.
Peres said the decision to pardon Kuntar was filled with "a bitter, unbearable pain."
"In this decision there is no forgiveness or absolution for the murderers' heinous actions," Peres said. "I will not forget, and I will not forgive."
Kuntar, a member of the Palestine Liberation Front, has been in Israeli jails since he was captured in 1979 after a botched raid from Lebanon that resulted in the death of four Israeli civilians, including a 4-year-old girl who Kuntar allegedly beat to death with the butt of his rifle after shoting the girl's 28-year-old father.
Israeli officials have repeatedly refused over the years to consider releasing Kuntar, though his name has been on nearly every list of prisoners whose release has been sought by Lebanon over the years.
But Israel's cabinet on Tuesday approved his pardon as part of an exchange that Israeli officials expect will result in the return, perhaps as soon as Wednesday, of the bodies of the two Israeli soldiers. Israel also has agreed to return the remains of 200 Lebanese and Palestinians who've been killed in clashes with Israeli forces over the years.
Relatives of the Israelis killed by Kuntar in the 1979 attack expressed dismay at the Israeli decision to free the Lebanese killer.
"I have a feeling of losing, a feeling of failure perhaps," Roni Saloman, one of those held by Kuntar during the attack, told Israel’s Channel 2.
Israeli leaders reluctantly approved the deal, with most agreeing in the end that it was important for their nation and the suffering families to have the bodies of the soldiers returned.