JERUSALEM — The long battle between Israel and Hezbollah, including the fighting over the past month that has left scores of Lebanese and Israelis dead, may have begun as a bid to free a single Lebanese terrorist.
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah had publicly announced his intention three years ago of doing whatever necessary, including capturing Israeli soldiers as bargaining chips, to free Samir Kuntar, who has been held prisoner in Israel for 27 years. Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers last month touched off the current conflict.
In 1979, Kuntar, then 16, was among four terrorists who reached the northern Israeli town of Nahariya, six miles from the Lebanese border, in the pre-dawn hours by rubber boat. They killed a policeman who came upon them and they entered an apartment building close to the shore.
Hearing the shooting, one of the residents, Dan Haran, helped his wife, Smadar, into a crawl space above their bedroom together with their 2-year-old daughter, Yael. He tried to leave the apartment with their other daughter, Einat, 4, to find shelter elsewhere but the terrorists were already at their door and pushed them back inside. As they searched the apartment, Mrs. Haran, whose mother had hidden from the Nazis during the Holocaust, covered Yael’s mouth with her hand to keep her from crying.
The terrorists took Mr. Haran and Einat back to the beach as hostages. In an ensuing shootout with police, two of the infiltrators and another policeman were killed. Kuntar shot Mr. Haran in front of his daughter, then crushed the girl’s skull with his rifle butt before being taken prisoner with the other remaining terrorist. Back in the apartment, Mrs. Haran discovered that she had suffocated her youngest daughter, resulting in her death.
Kuntar was tried and sentenced to four terms of life imprisonment. The other terrorist was also sentenced to life but he was freed in 1986 as part of a deal involving the return of three captured Israeli soldiers. Israel refused to include Kuntar in that package and in subsequent prisoner exchanges.
Abu Abbas, head of the Palestine Liberation Front, said he had sent the terrorists to protest the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace accords the previous year. In 1985, four of Abu Abbas’ men hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro off Egypt and killed an American in a wheelchair named Leon Klinghoffer. The four men demanded the release of 50 prisoners held by Israel. The only one specifically named was Kuntar. The terrorists eventually surrendered to Egyptian authorities.
Kuntar became a symbol in Lebanon as the longest-serving prisoner held by Israel. His family appealed to Sheik Nasrallah to obtain his release.
Six years ago, Hezbollah fighters attacked an Israeli patrol vehicle on a disputed part of the border and brought three severely wounded soldiers into Lebanon, where they died. Sheik Nasrallah succeeded three years later in exchanging their remains, together with an Israeli businessman who had been seized, for more than 400 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners.
Israel had agreed to release Kuntar as well, but only in exchange for information on the fate of an Israeli air force navigator who had been shot down and captured alive in Lebanon in 1986. No such information was handed over, and Kuntar remained in Israeli custody.
It was then that Sheik Nasrallah, who has always prided himself on keeping his word, warned he would capture more Israeli soldiers in order to win Kuntar’s release. Hezbollah made a bid to capture Israeli soldiers earlier this year at another point on the border, but the attempt ended with several dead Hezbollah men and no Israeli casualties.
Last month, with the capture of the two soldiers, a smiling Sheik Nasrallah appeared on TV to announce that he had kept his word — apparently triggering the present conflict that has claimed more than 1,000 Lebanese and almost 100 Israeli lives.