Spark for Israel-Hezbollah War Unresolved
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
There's still no resolution to the issue that led to this summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah. Israel wants the return of two soldiers taken prisoner.
Hezbollah says they will only be freed as part of an exchange for Lebanese prisoners held by Israel.
This morning, we'll learn about the man that Hezbollah wants back the most. His name is Samir Kantar. He was convicted of killing an Israeli man and his four-year-old daughter during a cross-border raid nearly three decades ago.
In Israel, Kantar is described as a monster. In Lebanon, he's considered a resistance fighter. NPR's Jamie Tarabay has been speaking with people on both sides of the issue, including Kantar's brother.
Mr. BASSAM KANTAR (Brother of Samir Kantar): Well, I'm confident that the freedom of Samir is just a matter of time.
JAMIE TARABAY: Bassam Kantar is a journalist for a newly launched Lebanese newspaper. He was not yet two years old when his brother Samir - who was then 16 - crossed into Israel by boat with three other militants in a guerrilla raid organized by the Palestine Liberation Front.
In letters smuggled out of Israeli jails, Kantar acknowledged he took part in the raid, but denied that he killed any civilians. But even if his brother did carry out the murders, Bassam says that 27 years in jail is enough.
Mr. KANTAR: Let's say that if I want to adopt the Israelis' story and I want to consider him as a criminal, now if he is sentenced in the international criminal court, I think after 27 years he would be freed.
TARABAY: There have been several attempts through the years to obtain Kantar's freedom, most notably in 1985 when Palestinian terrorist Abu Abbas demanded the release of Kantar and others in exchange for the hostages on board the hijacked Italian cruise liner, the Achille Lauro. Kantar's name came up again in 2003, when a German envoy mediated an exchange between Israel and Hezbollah. The Lebanese guerrillas handed over a kidnapped Israeli businessman and the remains of three Israeli soldiers in exchange for more than 400 Arab prisoners. But Kantar was not among them.
Smadar Haran Kaiser, the widow of the man Kantar was convicted of killing, called the killings of her husband and four-year-old daughter murders of unimaginable cruelty. But now, with Hezbollah holding two Israeli soldiers, Israeli officials say they're willing to consider Kantar's release.
He is the best-known and longest serving Lebanese prisoner in Israel, but he's not the only one.
Mr. MOHAMMAD SAFA (Lebanon): This is Samuel Hutaf(ph). This is Zef Haskev(ph). This is Ibrahim Zinedine(ph) from mountain. There are many, many Lebanese kidnapped during the Israeli occupation. Where are their bodies, for example? And Israel must give information: if they are alive, who hold them. If they are dead, give them us. Tell us the truth.
TARABAY: Mohammad Safa runs a rehabilitation center for victims of torture in downtown Beirut. On his door is a poster with headshots of Lebanese men listed either as missing or believed to be in Israeli jails.
Safar says Samir Kantar and at least one other man, Nessim Nesser(ph) - known to be held by Israel - should have been freed long ago, and that whatever their crimes, they were justified as acts of resistance against Israeli occupation.
Mr. SAFA: You going to ask what is the reason, because Israel occupied south Lebanon in 1978, and they came and destroyed many villages in south Lebanon. This is linked. Samir Kantar, and other Samir Kantar to make operation against Israel. You must find the reason. The reason is they occupied. And if you want to say Samir Kantar is not a killer, Samir Kantar is a Lebanese resistance.
TARABAY: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah says he's opened talks with a U.N.-appointed mediator about another prisoner exchange with Israel. But he says unless Israel agrees this time to free Samir Kantar, there will be no deal.
Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Beirut.
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