Lebanon ready to celebrate prisoners' return from Israel

Streets are decorated with banners welcoming the return of the former member of the radical Palestine Liberation Front.

kuntar prep 224 ap (photo credit: AP)
kuntar prep 224 ap
(photo credit: AP)
The last time Samir Kantar's mother saw her son, he said goodbye and told her he would be back in two days. Three decades later, the perpetrator of one of the most notorious attacks in Israeli history is set to return home this week as part of a prisoner swap between Israel and Hizbullah. He is Lebanon's longest held prisoner in Israel. "The two days lasted thirty years," Kantar's mother, Siham, told The Associated Press Monday while sitting on the balcony of her house in Abey, a mountain town 10 miles south of Beirut. Israel plans to free Kantar and four other prisoners Wednesday. In exchange, Hizbullah says it will return two soldiers it captured in 2006 that set off a monthlong war between Israel and the militant group. Israel believes the soldiers are dead. Kantar is serving multiple life terms in Israel after he and three other Lebanese infiltrated Israel in 1979 and staged a grisly attack in the northern coastal town of Nahariya. An Israeli court convicted Kantar of killing a policeman and then kidnapping a man and his 4-year-old daughter and killing them outside their home. Israel says Kantar, who was 16 at the time, brutally beat the girl to death by bashing her head with a rifle. He denies this, saying the girl was killed in the crossfire. As the attack unfolded, the girl's mother hid inside a crawl space inside their home and accidentally smothered their crying 2-year-old daughter, fearing Kantar would find them. Two of his co-conspirators were killed in a shootout with police. The third was also convicted and sent back to Lebanon in the 1980s as part of a prisoner swap. Katnar's release has stirred emotional opposition in Israel from relatives of victims of the attack and others. But in Abey, streets are decorated with banners welcoming the return of the former member of the radical Palestine Liberation Front. "Samir Kantar is the conscience of Lebanon, Palestine and the Arab nation. Abey welcomes the hero, prisoner Samir Kantar," reads one sign. Ceremonies to celebrate the prisoners' release are planned in Lebanon including one on Wednesday in the Hezbollah stronghold of southern Beirut and another in Abey. After the prisoners cross back into Lebanon Wednesday morning, they will be taken to Beirut's airport for a reception with the president and prime minister. Then a huge rally will be held in the capital's southern suburbs where Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah will speak, the group's Al-Manar TV said Monday. Siham Kantar says she doesn't believe her son killed any Israelis because during the shootout with police. She said he was shot and could not have "resisted and killed as they said." She also says she had no knowledge that her son was planning any such attack. "He left the house in 1979 three days before the attack, after he kissed his little brothers and sisters while they were asleep. Nobody at that time thought that Samir was planning an attack on the Israelis," said Siham. Her home was decorated with several pictures including one of her son with Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti, who also is jailed for life by Israel for involvement in deadly attacks on Israelis. Another picture on the living room wall features Hizbullah leader Nasrallah. Kantar's release was negotiated in indirect talks between Israel and Hizbullah that have been going for nearly two years through German UN mediators. Israel's government approved the release on June 29, but it took several weeks to work out final arrangements. Hezbollah has also confirmed the planned swap. As part of the deal, Israel also is expected to turn over the bodies of some 200 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters. Military crews dug up the bodies from an Israeli cemetery last week in preparation for the exchange. In return, Israel is to receive the two soldiers captured by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid on July 12, 2006, that set off a fierce 34-day war. Siham Kantar said she is "counting the hours and the seconds" until her son returns. Two members of his family have died since his imprisonment - his sister in 1982 after suffering a brain hemorrhage and his father in 1986 from a heart attack. "The first thing I want to do is congratulate him on his safe return, and then I want to embrace him and kiss him," she said. "I have been waiting for this moment for a long time."