Freed child killer becomes a symbol of resistance in Lebanon

AABEY, Lebanon — The skinny young brothers fidgeted in their plastic chairs as they gazed up at the beefy killer soaking in his first days of freedom after nearly three decades in Israeli prison.

"Do you know why we brought our kids to see you?" their father asked Samir Kuntar. "So they can be like you when they grow up." Kuntar took a drag of his cigarette and smiled at the latest guests to come by his family home in the cool pine mountains near Beirut.

"They are our future," said Kuntar, who celebrated his forty-sixth birthday on Sunday surrounded by friends and family for the first time since he was a teenager. "And we're counting on them to continue our path."

In the four days since Israel released Kuntar as part of a controversial prisoner swap between Israel and Hezbollah, the mustachioed militant has become an emblem of the uneasy political unity in Lebanon and the unresolved divisions cutting across the broader Middle East.

Kuntar's freedom is giving the Iran-backed Hezbollah more ammunition it its fight against Lebanon's directionless pro-Western politicians.

The unified reception Kuntar received has alarmed Israelis and Americans who don't understand why Lebanon declared a national holiday to honor a man convicted of killing four people in a 1979 attack, including a 4-year-old girl.

And Kuntar's freedom has underscored the difficulties Israel and Lebanon face in making peace any time soon.

"I am a symbol of resistance," Kuntar said in his first interview with an American newspaper reporter since being freed. "And now that I am free, I will continue to focus entirely on this."

Just what role Kuntar will play isn't clear. Anonymous Israeli security officials are already sending ominous warnings that Kuntar should watch his back.

After learning Hebrew in prison and getting a sociology degree from his cell, Kuntar said he is eager to pick up a weapon to fight Israel once again. Kuntar, a member of Lebanon's Druze community, staged his attack on Israel before Hezbollah came into existence.

Since being released last Wednesday, Kuntar has ceaselessly praised Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. Asked if he hoped to become the next Imad Mughnieyh, the Hezbollah military mastermind killed in February by a mysterious car bomb in Damascus, Kuntar laughed.

"God willing," he said. "I wish I can play such a role."

Kuntar has been overwhelmed by visitors since being freed as the centerpiece of the deal with Israel. As part of the exchange, Hezbollah returned the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the two Israeli soldiers mortally wounded on July 12, 2006 while patrolling the Lebanon border.

Israel immediately launched a costly month-long war that ended up damaging Israel's image as the Middle East's dominant military force. And it empowered Hezbollah, which has most-recently used its clout to secure veto-power for the first time within Lebanon's new coalition government.

Last week, in another sign of Hezbollah's undeniable influence, Lebanon's pro-Western politicians reluctantly turned out en-masse to welcome Kuntar home. Among those taking part were Western allies whose homes came under Hezbollah attack last May during gun battles with Hezbollah that nearly plunged Lebanon into a new sectarian war.

"It's a major feat for Hezbollah," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Lebanese political analyst and Hezbollah specialist. "They've basically forced the government to embrace resistance."

The images of America's allies lining up to praise Kuntar came as a shock to Israelis and Americans who see the militant as an unrepentant child killer. Kuntar was convicted of killing four people during the 1979 attack. Eyewitnesses said Kuntar shot an Israeli father as his daughter looked on and then used his rifle butt to smash the head of the 4-year-old girl.

Kuntar is telling a different story. During his trial, and in the years since, Kuntar has said that the two were killed by Israeli bullets in a firefight as he tried to escape.

On the eve of Kuntar's release, Israel released court records with eyewitness accounts and medical testimony that found tissue of the girl on Kuntar's gun.

Kuntar's supporters, however, are embracing the militant's version of events.

"We are not expecting that we can change the image around the world," said Kuntar's brother, Bassam. "But whenever we are asked, we will deny. Samir Kuntar did not kill the child."

But the anti-Israeli sentiment here runs much deeper. Many in Lebanon are still angry over Israel's punishing response to the 2006 Hezbollah attack. Israeli planes, tanks and artillery batteries staged relentless attacks that killed more than 1,200 Lebanese citizens and devastated the nation's economy.

"Yes, he is by all means a terrorist," said Mustafa Aloush, a Lebanese lawmaker who refused to take part in the Kuntar celebrations because they were led by Hezbollah. "But we lost 1,200 people in the last raids by Israel. Though it was retaliation against a terrorist act by Hezbollah, we felt that what Israel did was also a terrorist act."

The simmering resentment and internal Lebanese divisions are likely to prevent the nation from accepting a recent offer from Israel to open peace talks.

"We don't think that Lebanon is able to do this before solving its problem with Hezbollah," said Aloush. "If even a small faction doesn't want it, it will be a fiasco."