An Unwelcome Hero

Monday, July 7, 2008

FAR BE IT from us to second-guess the Israeli government's decision to trade Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah in the July 2006 incident that triggered a bloody 34-day war between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite organization. Many in Israel felt that ending the agony of the soldiers' families outweighed the risk that a trade would simply encourage more terrorism and hostage-taking. Many disagreed -- though in the end the Israeli cabinet's vote in favor was a lopsided 22 to 3. The exchange is now expected to take place in the coming week. Perhaps Prime Minister Ehud Olmert thought it was time to empty his jails of their last Lebanese inmates, so as to deprive Hezbollah of that perennial complaint. Or perhaps the prisoner exchange fits into a wider diplomatic strategy that includes incipient talks with Syria, an offer of talks with Lebanon and a shaky truce with Hamas. This turn of events does, however, tell us a lot about Hezbollah and about those within Lebanon's political culture who either support it or can't quite bring themselves to oppose it.

The story begins in 1979, when four terrorists based in Lebanon and affiliated with Abu Abbas landed in northern Israel, on a mission ostensibly aimed at protesting the recent Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement. The raid quickly went awry, and Israeli police cornered the terrorists. Hiding among rocks on the beach, one of the infiltrators, a 16-year-old named Samir Kuntar, proceeded to shoot and kill one of his hostages, then took the man's 4-year-old daughter and smashed her head between his rifle butt and a boulder until she was dead, too. Hiding elsewhere, the mother in this family covered her 2-year-old's mouth so tightly to prevent her sobs from being heard that she accidentally suffocated the child. Israel captured Mr. Kuntar and sentenced him to four life terms.

If anyone ever deserved the title "baby-killer," it is Samir Kuntar. Yet his freedom has been a popular demand in Lebanon and the cause of Lebanon-based gunslingers for almost three decades. Abbas's gang hijacked the Achille Lauro in 1985 in a failed effort to win Mr. Kuntar's release. After Abbas faded into semi-retirement in Saddam Hussein's Baghdad, Hezbollah took up the Kuntar cause, attempting to get Israel to swap him for bodies of Israelis killed in Hezbollah raids.

Great changes must take place across the Middle East before a lasting peace can be achieved. Israel must make territorial compromises and foster a dignified future for the Palestinians. But attitudes among Israel's enemies must be transformed as well. A good place to start would be to declare that people such as Samir Kuntar deserve to rot in prison, no matter what the religion or nationality of the children they kill.

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