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One prisoner — Samir Kuntar — plays important role in conflict

JERUSALEM — It came as no surprise when Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said that if Israelis wanted their two captured soldiers returned, they'd have to release Samir Kuntar.

Kuntar's release was first demanded during the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro. Since then, Palestinian and Lebanese groups have repeated the demand whenever a prisoner exchange has been discussed.

On Saturday evening, several Arabic stations reported about him, and the Hezbollah television station al Manar ran a feature about him that asked, "Isn't he worth a war?

Kuntar is the longest serving Lebanese and the fourth longest serving prisoner of all in Israel today, and his name is always at the top of the list of prisoners wanted released.

Jailed as a killer in 1979, he's a Palestinian hero, a Hezbollah symbol. Among Israelis, he's known as a terrorist, a cold-blooded killer whose crime evoked memories of the Holocaust.

Palestinian attorney Buthaninah Dugmag in the West Bank city of Ramallah said it's too simple to say that the war between Israel and Hezbollah is based on Hezbollah's desire to get Kuntar out of prison. But he's an important factor.

"Maybe if they'd just released him before, as they released thousands of others, we wouldn't now be in the mess we're in," she said.

Israel has stated goals of disarming Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hezbollah has been sniping at Israeli forces periodically since Israel pulled its forces out of southern Lebanon in 2000.

But the final spur that set these two at war was Hezbollah's kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, and at least part of the reason for that is thought to be an attempt to win Kuntar's release.

As close friend and former cellmate Sheik Adnan Mahquad Youssef said Friday, "Samir Kuntar is a hero to all people here. His mission was heroic. His actions from prison have been heroic. We respect and love him totally."

Kuntar's story remains vivid here. At about 2 a.m. on April 22, 1979, Kuntar — then 16 — beached a rubber raft with three others at Nahariya, a Jewish town just over the border from Lebanon. His supporters note that he dodged Israeli patrol boats and radar and landed to confront the Israeli military. His detractors note that firing an AK-47 and tossing grenades in front of him, he stormed into an apartment building full of families.

Smadar Haran-Kaiser was in that building, with her husband and daughters, aged 5 and 2. As Kuntar raged through the building, searching for people to be kidnapped for use as exchange for Lebanese prisoners, Haran-Kaiser hid in a crawl space with her 2-year-old. Her husband and older daughter tried to flee. Israeli reports indicate Kuntar shot the husband in the head and smashed the girl's skull.

But as Haran-Kaiser, the daughter of a Polish Holocaust survivor, cowered in the apartment, hearing Kuntar's footsteps nearby, the little girl cried. Haran-Kaiser placed a hand over the mouth of her daughter, and accidentally smothered her. In all, five Israelis died in the attack, but it was this death that created visions of the Holocaust, a woman hiding in the rafters, forced to kill her daughter while trying to save her. The reaction was fierce.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin's party called for new laws and the death penalty for terrorists. Kuntar was given five life-sentences, the harshest penalty available.

This week, in the same town, Haran-Kaiser fled into a bomb shelter as Hezbollah's Katyusha rockets rained down, and she said the memories flooded back.

"This man, he is more than a killer to us, he is a symbol of the viciousness, the brutality, the hatred, of this fight against us," she said. "The demands for his freedom expose the evil faces from behind the mask, and show we cannot trust these people."

She said it was important for people to remember this crime.

"This cycle of terrorism did not start now," she said.

To Hezbollah and Palestinians, Kuntar is a freedom fighter. They see his actions as an act of war and believe that like all prisoners of war, he should have been returned. In the time since his arrest, the man arrested with him has been exchanged for Israeli prisoners.

In prison, Kuntar has led hunger strikes and prison revolts and has earned a bachelor's degree (from the Open University of Tel Aviv, where he even took a course on the Holocaust). Although he arrived in Israel before Hezbollah was founded and was not a Palestinian (Yasser Arafat later gave him honorary Palestinian citizenship), both groups want him released.

Magnus Ranstorp, chief scientist at the Swedish National Defense College Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies, has been studying Hezbollah for two decades. He said Kuntar's importance shouldn't be underestimated.

"Nasrallah has personally promised to bring him into a prisoner exchange scheme," he said. "He's an important figure to the Hezbollah leader."

David Green, deputy editor of Jerusalem Report, said that Kuntar's importance in Israel these days is more than symbolic.

"They were horrible crimes, innocents died, but they were a long time ago," he said. "But the fact that he is so important means he is an ace in the hole for negotiations."

Specifically, he thinks he might be used to get information on captured Israeli pilot Ron Arad, who went missing in 1986. Arad and Kuntar are often mentioned together.

Bassam Kuntar, who last saw his brother when he was 2, said from the family home in Lebanon that "it is extremely difficult for our family, that my brother is treated more as a bargaining chip than a man."

He then, however, offered a bargain. While saying he didn't know exactly where the Israeli soldiers were being held, he said he knew they were in good condition. He added that offering to exchange Kuntar for them would be a good start to negotiations.

"Israel refuses to negotiate, but I say to the families that what happened to the pilot Arad does not have to happen to their sons," he said.

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