On July 29, 2015 the Israeli media reported that Samir Kuntar, a former member of a Palestinian terrorist group and a current collaborator with the Syrian regime and Hezbollah was killed in an Israeli airstrike. While Kuntar's death has not been confirmed, it is, nevertheless, worth recalling who Kuntar is and why his possible demise was deemed newsworthy.
Kuntar is an icon to Israel's enemies. He is hailed as a hero by Hezbollah in Lebanon, formally honored by the Syrian regime and Iran and his past actions are celebrated across the region. After his release from incarceration in Israel in July 2008, he was greeted with much jubilation upon his arrival in Lebanon.
Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed proxy force in Lebanon, has long accorded Kuntar a special status. Prior to Israel's decision to release him, Hezbollah had demanded his release in exchange for the bodies of Israeli soldiers in Hezbollah's custody and threatened to kidnap Israelis for use as bargaining chips. The bloody war in the summer of 2006 initiated by Hezbollah was launched in part to gain the release of Kuntar from Israeli imprisonment.
According to the New York Times, after Kuntar's 30-year sentence in Israel was completed and he was allowed to return to Lebanon, a mass rally was held in which a banner hoisted above the crowd proclaimed, "God's Achievement Through Our Hands." At the rally, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah extolled Kuntar and the crowd chanted, "Samir, Samir, Samir."
Kuntar was feted by the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, where he was presented with the Syrian Order of Merit. During the ceremony, the Syrian dictator waxed eloquent, "His being here with us and his determination to promote Arab rights, despite everything he's been through, has turned him into a symbol of the struggle for freedom across the Arab world and the whole world."
Kuntar's celebrity tour did not end there. He also traveled to Iran, where he received yet another award from then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
As evidence of his popular appeal in the region, the Lebanese affiliate of Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite news station, welcomed him home by throwing an on-air birthday party that included a large frosting-covered cake. The station's bureau chief hailed him as a "pan-Arab hero."
According to the Jerusalem Post, the Lebanese government shut down to celebrate Kuntar's return. Haaretz reported that then Lebanese President Emile Lahoud called the event "dear to my heart. I view Samir Kuntar as one of my sons and I wish the couple a happy life."
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas praised Kuntar, calling him the "great Samir Kuntar."
Admiration for Kuntar is not restricted to the Middle East. An "anti-Zionist blog" called Jews Sans Frontieres, wrote of his release:
Samir Quntar, a Lebanese Druze, left Israel's dungeon today after three decades of imprisonment. He rejoins his family and, based on his words, the resistance. He is now being feted as a Lebanese hero. Kuntar is a Druze who joined the Palestinian resistance as a teenager and has been now ransomed by the Shite resistance. With his release, Hizbullah celebrates the final humiliation of Israel after the 2006 defeat. It's a well deserved celebration. Let us soon see Israel's other 11,000 (yes, that is eleven thousands) political prisoners free!
Even the mainsteam media was not immune to the wave of empathy. The New York Times, while certainly not endorsing Kuntar's actions, nevertheless shifted the onus onto Israel, announcing his release with the headline, "Hero's Welcome Expected in Lebanon for Captive of Israel." Throughout the article, there runs an implicit question of whether Kuntar is guilty of the cold-blooded crimes of which he is accused or whether he is a courageous fighter against Israel whose mission went "horribly wrong."? Both possibilities are given equal weight despite the overwhelming evidence and Kuntar's own confession, which he later denied, but eventually reconfirmed. The Times article, by correspondent Craig Smith, ultimately settles its uncertainty with the ambivalent summation, "Whatever the truth, his kidnapping of a child casts an awkward light on Kuntar's supposed heroism."
The Times article also recites the customary story of a young man's tragic path to terrorism. According to the Times, Kuntar's supposed difficult childhood and defiant reaction to Israeli violence prompted his involvement in terrorism. Such clichéd stories rarely hold up to scrutiny. An article in the Tablet provides an alternate story of his origins: "Born to a family of wealthy Lebanese Druze restaurateurs, Kuntar rejected his comfortable bourgeois upbringing for the thrills and thrusts of terrorism." The Tablet's claim of Kuntar's privileged upbringing is consistent with other notorious terrorists who were the detritus of affluent families. Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (aka Carlos the Jackal), Sabri al Banna (aka Abu Nidal), and 9-11 hijacker Mohammed Atta are examples of this disturbing phenomenon.
The Times was not the only mainstream news source to see nuance in Kuntar's life and actions. CNN and the Washington Post both ran articles that cast doubt on his guilt. CNN reporter Octavia Nasr never refers to Kuntar as a "terrorist" and she uses bland nonjudgmental terminology to describe the attack of which he was found guilty as an "incursion [that] left a policeman, a young father and his 4-year-old daughter dead."
The media is not alone in its inability to recognize terrorism for what it is. According to NGO-Monitor, an Israel-based organization that monitors non-governmental organizations involved in the Middle East, the "human rights organization" Amnesty International classified Kuntar as a "political prisoner" revealing further evidence of the internationally recognized group's moral confusion.
Kuntar's own statements and actions attest to his guilt. Kuntar stated, "I haven't for even one day regretted what I did. On the contrary I remain committed to my political convictions. I feel enormous joy because I have returned to the ranks of the resistance and to my family" (AFP, July 17, 2007). In another interview after his release, Kuntar confessed, "to be honest, our operation had both civilian and military targets." Kuntar made a highly visible visit to the grave of Imad Mughniyah to pay homage to the arch-terrorist responsible for the U.S. Marine barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983 that killed 241 American servicemen and deadly attacks on Jewish community centers in Latin America. More recently Kuntar has been reported to be instigating terrorist activities in the Golan. These activities provided the backdrop for the Israeli airstrike that was said to target him.
So what was it that Kuntar did that has made him a hero and an icon to so many in the Middle East? The following is a summary description:
On April 22, 1979, Kuntar's terror cell reached the shore of Nahariya in a rubber dinghy; they shot at a police car and killed an Israeli police officer. At midnight they broke into the Haran family home, and abducted the father, Danny, and his four-year-old daughter, Einat. The mother, Smadar, the two-year-old daughter Yael, and a neighbor hid in a bedroom crawlspace.
The terrorists took the hostages towards the shore and, when they encountered law enforcement officers and IDF soldiers, Samir Kuntar shot Danny Haran at close range and cold-bloodedly slaughtered Einat by bashing her skull against a rock with the butt of his rifle. In the hiding place at the Haran home, baby Yael suffocated to death from her mother's attempts to keep her quiet so the terrorists would not find them.
A society defines itself by whom it chooses to elevate to the status of icon and hero.