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Hizbullah officials recently made surprising promises to the family members of Lebanese prisoner Samir Kuntar, according to which he would be released from Israeli prison "very soon."
The militia's chief also declared that if Kuntar were not released, Hizbullah would not negotiate any exchange whatsoever. In the past, Hizbullah regarded releasing Kuntar as an obligatory precondition for any future prisoner exchange deal with Israel.
Kuntar, the longest-serving confirmed Lebanese prisoner in jail in Israel, is serving multiple life terms for the killing of three members of the Haran family and that of policeman Eliyahu Shahar in a raid on Nahariya in 1979.
A Hizbullah delegation recently met Kuntar's family in the city of Abiya. The Lebanese Sheikh who came with the envoy, Sheikh Atalla Hamoud, told Kuntar's family that his release would happen very soon. "Your meeting with us is at hand," he addressed to Kuntar in the meeting with his family members.
During the meeting, Kuntar's brother, Bassam, who in recent years has been leading the campaign to release his brother, thanked the Lebanese prisoners captured during the recent Lebanon War and the "Shahids who defeated the enemy."
Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said many times in the past that releasing Kuntar was one of his top priorities. Last April, Nasrallah made a speech in which he promised to continue Jihad activity and resistance against Israel until Kuntar's release.
"You will return by the force of the resistance's guns, the resistance's blood and the resistance's actions. I want to promise you and your brothers that when we practice Jihad, we rely on our right to release our prisoners by any means possible," Nasrallah said.
After the kidnapping of two IDF soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, in July 2006, Nasrallah held a press conference in which he repeated his commitment to release Kuntar in a prisoner exchange deal with Israel.
In August, when asked whether Israel might free Kuntar in an exchange deal, a senior Israeli government source did not rule this out, but said Israel would have to ascertain exactly "what is being offered." He declined to elaborate, but it is possible that this may have been a reference to the possible inclusion of information on missing Israeli airman Ron Arad in an exchange deal.
Israel has previously shown a readiness to free Kuntar in the context of a deal involving news about Arad. Indeed, it was reported that Kuntar would be released in the second phase of a German-mediated prisoner deal with Hizbullah in 2004, in exchange for information on Arad.