A Brother Hopes Anew for Man Long Held by Israel

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 5, 2006

BEIRUT -- Amid the chaos and grief of the three-week-old war here, Bassam al-Qantar has allowed himself to hope. After years trying to get his brother Samir out of an Israeli prison, he said, now may finally be the time.

Samir al-Qantar, 44, was sentenced to over 500 years in jail after leading a four-man Palestinian raid at the age of 16 on Nahariya in northern Israel that killed two policemen, a civilian man and his 4-year-old daughter. Witnesses said Qantar smashed her skull with his rifle butt.

Bassam was only 1 in 1979 when the acts occurred. But since his teenage years, he has campaigned tirelessly for Samir's release, seeking out government officials, human rights groups, lawyers -- anyone who would listen.

Now Hezbollah, the radical Shiite Muslim movement, has put Samir al-Qantar at the top of the list of Lebanese prisoners whose release it is demanding in exchange for two Israeli soldiers seized July 12 in a cross-border raid that touched off the current conflict. According to reports from Jerusalem, such a swap might be a part of an agreement to end the crisis being worked out at the United Nations.

"I think it is finally the time for Samir to come home," said the brother, 29, who is an environment editor at the soon-to-debut Lebanese newspaper Al Akbar. "For sure, it will happen."

Samir al-Qantar, believed to be the longest-held Arab prisoner in Israel, has been on such lists before.

The Palestinians demanded he be released, because the raid was carried out by the Palestine Liberation Front of Mohammed Abbas, part of Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. Five times in proposed exchanges, Hezbollah demanded he be released, because he is a Lebanese citizen, a member of the Druze faith from a village near the Mount Lebanon town of Aley. Followers of Abbas who seized the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and killed an American passenger in October 1985 demanded his release, because he was a member of their group.

But in several prisoner exchanges, Samir al-Qantar was never released. The reason, Bassam al-Qantar said, is that Israelis remember what he did as particularly hateful. By Israeli accounts, his brother took the girl and her father hostage, then shot the father and killed the girl with his rifle butt as police closed in. In addition, the girl's mother accidentally smothered another child while trying to keep her quiet in a hiding place.

Israel in the past agreed to release Qantar if Hezbollah would provide evidence of the fate of Ron Arad, an Israeli air force navigator missing in Lebanon since 1986. But the information about Arad was never provided and Israel continued to hold Qantar.

Samir has also become a symbol of the terrorist threat to the Jewish state, Bassam al-Qantar said. A senior military officer was seriously wounded in the operation, he noted, and the mother of the 4-year-old girl has become an effective spokeswoman for victims of such violence.

"So they considered him as a hero-killer and a baby-killer," he said. "The problem is, the case is famous."

In addition, Samir al-Qantar remained defiant even at his trial. According to reports from the time, when he was sentenced he declared, "I don't care if the sentence was nine or even 10 life sentences. The important thing for us is that we made them realize that we are here to stay. Now and tomorrow."

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