Samir Kuntar (Arabic: سمير القنطار, also transcribed Sameer, Kantar, Quntar, Qantar; 20 July 1962 – 19 December 2015) was a Lebanese Druze freedom fighter and member of the Palestine Liberation Front who was convicted of murder. After his release from prison as part of the 2008 Israel–Hezbollah prisoner exchange, he received the Syrian Order of Merit medal, honored by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and designated a Specially Designated Global Terrorist by the US government.
In Israel Kuntar is considered the perpetrator of one of the most brutal terrorist attacks in the country's history. On April 22, 1979, at the age of 16, Kuntar participated in the killing of an Israeli policeman and the attempted kidnapping of an Israeli family in Nahariya that resulted in the deaths of four Israelis and two of his fellow kidnappers.
Kuntar and his team broke into an apartment building and kidnapped a father, 31-year-old Danny Haran, and his 4-year-old daughter, Einat, taking them to a nearby beach. According to eye witnesses and forensic reports, Kuntar shot Danny to death at close range, and then killed the girl Einat by smashing her skull against the rocks with the butt of his rifle. During the attack, Smadar Haran accidentally suffocated her two-year-old daughter Yael to death while attempting to quiet her whimpering, which would have revealed their hiding place. Newsweek states that the details of Kuntar's attack are "so sickening they give pause even to some of Israel's enemies."
After his release, Kuntar became a senior official in Hezbollah, a Lebanese Islamist militant group. According to Druze sources, Hezbollah put Kuntar in charge of the Quneitra Governorate during the Syrian Civil War, where he commanded attacks against Israeli targets. According to the US government, Kuntar played an operational role, with the assistance of Iran and Syria, in "building up Hezbollah’s terrorist infrastructure in the Golan Heights".
On December 19, 2015, Kuntar was killed by an explosion in the outskirts of Damascus. According to official Syrian sources, Kuntar was killed by "terrorist rocket attack". On 20 December 2015, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi described the incident as a terrorist operation “plotted beforehand”, noting that Syrian authorities were carrying out an investigation to find out how the operation happened. Hezbollah claimed that the building was destroyed by an air-to-surface missile launched by Israeli Air Force jets. On 21 December, the Free Syrian Army released a video clip claiming responsibility for killing Kuntar.
Kuntar was born to a Druze family in Lebanon. His parents divorced soon after his birth and his mother died when he was a boy. The father remarried and moved to Saudi Arabia, leaving Samir in the care of his second wife, Siham, in Abey, a village southeast of Beirut. Kuntar dropped out of school at 14 and underwent training in the camps of various Palestinian militant groups and became a member of the Palestine Liberation Front. His goal was to take part in an attack on Israel.
On January 31, 1978 Samir Kuntar and three additional militants from his organization attempted to hijack an Israeli bus running the line between Beit She'an and Tiberias in order to demand the release of militants imprisoned in Israel. They traveled to Jordan and attempted to cross the Jordan river into Israel by swimming. However, before crossing, they were arrested by the Jordanian intelligence. Kuntar spent 11 months in Jordanian prison and was released in December 1978. He was banned from entering Jordan for three years.
Raid from Southern Lebanon
On April 22, 1979, at the age of 16, Samir Kuntar led a group of four PLF militants who entered Israel from Lebanon by boat. The group members included Abdel Majeed Aslan (born in 1955), Muhanna Salim Al-Muayyad (born in 1960) and Ahmad al-Abras (born in 1949). They all belonged to the PLF under the leadership of Abu Abbas. The group departed from the Tyre seashore in Southern Lebanon using a 55-hp motorized rubber boat with an 88 km/h speed. The goal of the operation was to attack Nahariya, 10 kilometers away from the Lebanese border. They named it "Operation Nasser".
Around midnight, they arrived at the coastal town of Nahariya. The four first killed Eliyahu Shachar, a policeman who encountered them. The group then entered a building on Jabotinsky Street where they split into pairs. One group broke into the apartment of the Haran family before police reinforcements had arrived. They took 31 year-old Danny Haran hostage along with his four-year-old daughter Einat. According to Samir Kuntar, Danny Haran would not let go of his daughter and come with them alone. The mother, Smadar Haran, was able to hide in a crawl space above the bedroom with her two-year-old daughter Yael, and a neighbor.
Shoot-out and killings
Kuntar's group took Danny and Einat down to the beach, where a shoot-out with Israeli policemen and soldiers erupted. According to the official Israeli version, when Kuntar's group found that the rubber boat they had arrived in was disabled by gunfire, Kuntar shot Danny at close range in the back, in front of his daughter, and drowned him in the sea to ensure he was dead. Next, he smashed the head of 4 year-old Einat on beach rocks and crushed her skull with the butt of his rifle.
Smadar Haran accidentally suffocated Yael to death while attempting to quiet her whimpering, which would have revealed their hiding place, from where she saw Danny and Einat being led away at gunpoint by Kuntar. During the shoot-out a second policeman and another of Kuntar's comrades were killed. Kuntar and the fourth member of the group, Ahmad Assad al-Abras, were injured and captured. al-Abras was freed by Israel in the prisoner exchange of May 1985.
al-Kuntar and al-Abras were charged with murder. During interrogation al-Kuntar had signed a confession accepting responsibility for the deaths of the policeman and of Danny and Einat Haran. At the trial, however, he denied killing either the father or the daughter. His defense claimed that he had been beaten in the detention center.
al-Kuntar explained that the group's goal had been to take hostages back to Lebanon, and that he had taken the 4-year-old to prevent Israeli police from shooting at them. According to him Danny Haran suddenly rose up, shouting and signalling to the Israeli soldiers to stop shooting. Both of them were then hit by the soldiers’ bullets, killing Haran and seriously wounding al-Kuntar and rendering him unconscious. He claimed to have no knowledge of the fate of the girl.
An anonymous witness for the prosecution confirmed that Haran had shouted to the soldiers "Cease your fire, don't shoot, my little girl is here," but that al-Kuntar then shot him in the back. An Israeli physician testified at the trial that the child was killed by "a blow from a blunt instrument, like a club or rifle butt." The pathologist's report showed that Einat's brain matter was found on Kuntar's rifle.
Both al-Kuntar and al-Abras were convicted of murdering five people, two policemen and three members of the Haran family. They were sentenced to five life sentences, and an additional forty-seven years for injuries inflicted. The court file containing the evidence submitted and the court proceedings was declared top secret and no one, with the exception of the pardons committee, was allowed to access the file for almost 30 years. A few days before al-Kuntar’s expected release in the 2008 Israel–Hezbollah prisoner exchange Yedioth Ahronoth was finally given access to Court File No. 578/79, with two notable exceptions.
At his trial, and consistently thereafter, al-Kuntar denied killing the 4-year-old or her father. He told his detailed version of the events to Maariv correspondent Chen Kotes-Bar. According to a former cellmate, Yasser Hanjar, al-Kuntar "never expressed remorse, but maintains a different version [of the events] than the Israeli one", that he only wanted to take the Israeli family hostage, and that he "firmly rejected allegations he had smashed the head of 4-year-old Einat Haran." After his release, al-Kuntar accused the Israeli government of fabricating the story of how he killed the child. A Psychologist, Zvi Sela, served as Chief Intelligence Officer of the Israel Prison Service and met al-Kuntar in prison in this capacity. In an interview with Haaretz he claimed that he believed Kuntar's version:
"We turned Kuntar into God-knows-what – the murderer of Danny Haran and his daughter, Einat. The man who smashed in the girl's head. That's nonsense. A story. A fairy tale. He told me he didn't do it and I believe him. I investigated the event… and in my opinion there is support for the fact that they were killed by fire from the Israeli rescue forces. You can accuse him all you like, but it was obviously the rescue forces that opened fire."
According to Sela, Kuntar also said that he would not go back to terrorism, if released.
Treatment in prison
During his imprisonment, Kuntar married Kifah Kayyal (born in 1963), an Israeli Arab woman who is an activist on behalf of militant prisoners. They later divorced. While they were married, she received a monthly stipend from the Israeli government, an entitlement due to her status as a wife of a prisoner. Kayyal is an Israeli citizen of Palestinian origin from Acre, now residing in Ramallah, who was then serving a life sentence for her activities in the Palestine Liberation Front. Kuntar was allowed conjugal visits with his wife while in prison. They had no children. In addition, while in prison Kuntar participated in a program under which Palestinian security prisoners took online courses from the Open University of Israel, and graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Social and Political Science.
Negotiations for release
Several years later, the Palestine Liberation Front seized the Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise ship, demanding that Israel release Kuntar along with 50 Palestinian prisoners. Kuntar was the only prisoner specifically named. The hijackers killed Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound Jewish-American passenger, and threw his body and wheelchair overboard.
In 2003, Israel agreed to release around 400 prisoners in exchange for businessman Elchanan Tenenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers held by Hezbollah since 2000. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah refused to accept the deal unless it included Samir Kuntar. "Hezbollah's conditions have become clear and defined, and we are sticking to them in all circumstances", Nasrallah declared in his statement.
Israel then agreed to release Samir Kuntar on condition that Hezbollah provided "solid evidence" as to the fate of Ron Arad, an air force navigator missing in Lebanon since 1986.
Inspired by the prisoner swap, Hamas vowed, a few days later, that they would also abduct Israeli soldiers to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners. Hassan Nasrallah simultaneously told his supporters that Hezbollah would continue to kidnap Israelis until "not a single prisoner" remained inside Israeli jails.
In 2006, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and UN envoy Terje Rød-Larsen proposed a deal in which Kuntar and all other Lebanese prisoners would be released on condition that Syria declared Shebaa farms as Lebanese territory, the Lebanese deployed troops on the country's southern border with Israel, Israel withdrew from Shebaa farms and the Israeli air force stopped flying over Lebanon, Israeli occupation ended, though Hezbollah was not disarmed and Hezbollah was not removed from the border areas.
Prisoner exchange deal
On May 26, 2008, Israeli sources announced that Samir Kuntar was among those who would be exchanged for the bodies of two reservists, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, captured by Hezbollah in the Zar'it-Shtula incident that sparked the 2006 Lebanon War. On June 29, 2008 the Israeli cabinet approved the prisoner exchange between Hezbollah and Israel which would involve the release of Kuntar despite intelligence stating that the two soldiers were almost certainly dead. Kuntar and four other prisoners released as part of the deal were the last of the Lebanese prisoners in Israeli custody. Also included in the deal was the release of the remains of other Lebanese from all other previous wars and, after a suitable interval, dozens of Palestinian prisoners.
On July 16, 2008, Hezbollah transferred coffins containing the remains of captured Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, in exchange for Kuntar and four Hezbollah members taken prisoner during the 2006 Lebanon War.
Upon Kuntar's arrival at Beirut Airport, along with four other freed Lebanese prisoners, he was officially received by the Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, Speaker of the Parliament of Lebanon Nabih Berri, some Lebanese members of Parliament, and Muslim and Christian clerics.
Hezbollah arranged a public celebration in Dahieh (their stronghold in Beirut), where Hassan Nasrallah gave a welcoming speech to Kuntar.
On July 17, 2008, Kuntar visited the tomb of Imad Mughniyeh. Later that day, a homecoming function was organized in Kuntar's native village of Aabey, southeast of Beirut. The ceremony was addressed by Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt and the Labour Minister and Hezbollah official, Mohammad Fneish.
On July 19, 2008, Al Jazeera TV broadcast a program from Lebanon about Kuntar's welcoming festivities. In it, the head of Al Jazeera's Beirut office, Ghassan bin Jiddo, praised Kuntar, calling him a "pan-Arab hero", and organized a birthday party for him. In response, Israel's Government Press Office (GPO) threatened to boycott the satellite channel unless it apologized. A few days later, Al Jazeera's director general, Khanfar Wadah, issued a statement admitting parts of the program had violated the station's Code of Ethics, and ordered the channel's programming director to try to prevent a recurrence.
On November 24, 2008, Kuntar visited Syria, where he met with President Bashar Assad. Assad awarded him the Syrian Order of Merit. Kuntar also visited Druze communities in the Syrian-controlled Golan Heights. At the ceasefire line with Israel, he used the opportunity to express solidarity with the Druze community in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights: "President Bashar Assad has promised me that he will help you," Kuntar said. "I say to you, soon president Assad will fly the Syrian flag over the Golan."
Statements following his release
After his release, Kuntar made a number of statements on certain elements of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Prisoner exchange deal
In an interview to Al-Manar, Hezbollah's satellite television network, Kuntar said: "I'm jealous of the Zionists, who don't spare any effort in bringing back captured soldiers or soldiers' bodies. Seriously, we are jealous of our enemy and its care for a [body] and how it goes to the end of the world in order to return it, and of its concerns for captives and how it will go to the very edge to bring them back."
New attacks against Israel
In an interview with Al-Jadid TV, which aired July 18, 2008 (as translated by the MEMRI), Kuntar stated that: "There is a disease in this region called "the state of Israel," which we refer to as "the plundering entity." If we do not put an end to this disease, it will follow us, even if we flee to the end of the world. So it's better to get rid of it." In a subsequent interview, Kuntar stated that "and God willing, I will get the chance to kill more Israelis."
In an interview with the Agence France-Presse in October 2008, Kuntar stated that "The resistance will end only when the Zionist entity disappears." He also claimed that Israel is preparing to attack Lebanon again and that "Israel is going to suffer great losses. The idea that Israel is an invincible, secure state has become a myth."
Attacks on Israeli civilians
In an interview with Al-Jazeera TV and Al-Jadid/New TV, which aired July 26, 2008 (as translated by the MEMRI), Kuntar stated that: "To be honest, our operation had both civilian and military targets. Today, tomorrow, and the next day – our targets are always. … There are no civilian targets – it's "civilian" in quotation marks. The Zionists themselves define the Israeli as a soldier who is on leave for 11 months every year."
Assassination of Anwar Sadat
In an interview with Al-Jazeera TV and Al-Jadid/New TV, which aired July 26, 2008 (as translated by the MEMRI), Kuntar was asked how he viewed the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Kuntar stated that: "[The assassination of Sadat was] a most wonderful operation – to the point that all the prisoners cheered together when Sadat was assassinated. This man symbolized treason and apostasy. Ever since Camp David. … Look at the history – Camp David, the 1982 invasion, and then the strike against Iraq. … All the catastrophes that befell the Arab world began with Camp David. It was a wonderful historical moment, which I hope will recur in similar cases."
In March 2009 he married Zeineb Barjawi, the daughter of a prominent Lebanese Shia family.
He was on the list of individuals banned from entering the United Kingdom.
Syrian Civil War
It is claimed that Samir Kuntar had been put in charge of the Syrian part of the Golan Heights by Hezbollah, with a special emphasis on Druze villages, and commanded some attacks against Israeli soldiers in the area. He is accused of being behind the attack on a Magen David Adom ambulance by Israeli Druze who claimed it was transporting a Syrians to Israel for health care.
In July 2015, it was claimed that Kuntar was targeted and possibly killed in an alleged Israeli drone strike upon his automobile in the Syrian-controlled Golan Heights town of Hader, along with members of Hezbollah and the Syrian National Defence Forces.
On December 19, 2015, Kuntar was killed by an explosion destroying a six-story residential building in Jaramana on the outskirts of Damascus. The explosion also killed eight Syrian nationals, among them Hezbollah field commanders, and injured a number of other people. According to official Syrian sources, Kuntar was killed by "rocket attack." On December 20, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi described the incident as a terrorist operation “plotted beforehand," noting that Syrian authorities were carrying out an investigation to find out how the operation happened. Hezbollah claimed that the building was destroyed by an air-to-surface missile launched by Israeli Air Force jets. Hezbollah alleged that two Israeli jets allegedly penetrated Syrian airspace. Hezbollah vowed revenge on Israel after the attack. On December 21, the Free Syrian Army released a video clip claiming responsibility for killing Kuntar and accusing Hezbollah of blaming Israel for propaganda purposes.
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