Iran and Hamas both have good reason to praise Wednesday’s prisoner exchange between Hezbollah and Israel as a victory for the jihadists, at least in the short term. Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist proxy, won the release of five imprisoned Lebanese in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers kidnapped and killed by Hezbollah on July 12, 2006, in a cross-border attack that precipitated that summer’s Israel-Hezbollah war. Hamas says that in the wake of Hezbollah’s success in getting Lebanese gunmen out of Israeli prisons, it plans to drive a hard bargain for the release of Israeli Cpl. Gilad Schalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas in a June 25, 2006, cross-border raid into southern Israel.
Hezbollah’s biggest coup was winning the release of Samir Kantar, the notorious Lebanese terrorist. Kantar was part of a terror squad that infiltrated the coastal town of Nahariya by boat on April 22, 1979, first killing a policeman. Kantar, a Lebanese Druze, then broke into an apartment and dragged a young father and his 4-year-old daughter onto the beach. He then shot the father to death in front of the little girl before smashing her skull with the butt of his gun, killing her as well. The child’s mother had been hiding in a closet during Kantar’s rampage. She inadvertently smothered her infant to death in an effort to keep him quiet.
Within Israel, there is deep division over the merits of releasing Kantar and the other four Lebanese who were captured by Israeli forces during the 2006 war. Israel has a longstanding tradition of going to great lengths to return POWs and soldiers killed on the battlefield. But that usually comes with a steep price - freeing terrorists and enabling them to return to the battlefield, something that has happened repeatedly in the wake of prisoner exchanges over the past few decades. But the families of imprisoned Israeli soldiers are a powerful political force in Israel - powerful enough to exert a great deal of influence on Israeli politicians to yield to the demands of Hezbollah or Hamas.
Within Lebanon, however, there is no such ambiguity. Kantar received a hero’s welcome from government officials, including President Michal Suleiman and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. He appeared onstage at a rally in Beirut wearing a Hezbollah uniform and pledged to follow in the footsteps of Hezbollah military chief Imad Mugniyeh, who was assassinated in Damascus in February. Kantar’s behavior drew notice in the Israeli press, where commentators noted that Israel has a long memory. They pointed out how commandos had waited years to hunt down and kill the terrorists who planned the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. If he is wise, Kantar will be spending the rest of his life looking over his shoulder.