Why Samir Kuntar mustn't go home

He has become a symbol - and that is powerful and dangerous.

Kuntar 224.88 (photo credit: Channel 2)
Kuntar 224.88
(photo credit: Channel 2)
It seemed like a done deal. In return for reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser - or their remains, as Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah had intimated and Israeli authorities had begun saying was likely - Israel intended, pending cabinet approval, to release several Lebanese prisoners "in a week or so," chief among them Samir Kuntar. Now it appears the swap may be delayed: Hizbullah has reportedly insisted on including hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners, something Israel has rejected in the past. Earlier this month, under the headline "Another bad deal," this newspaper editorialized against releasing Kuntar, who is serving four life sentences for killing Danny Haran, 28, his two small daughters, Einat and Yael, and police officer Eliahu Shahar of Nahariya in 1979. The editorial pretty well covered the moral issue, the natural revulsion against freeing this "soulless unrepentant" who reportedly smashed little Einat's head with a rifle butt while her helpless father, Kuntar's next victim, looked on. And even if, as Israeli officials and pundits have speculated, Hizbullah really has no more information about the fate of navigator Ron Arad - which would neutralize Kuntar's continued worth as a bargaining chip - the prospect of this unreconstructed killer leaving the prison cell in which he so deservedly belongs sticks in the throat of every decent person. THE EDITORIAL questioned, too, the wisdom of Israel's all-too-frequent lopsided prisoner exchanges and the comfort and spur they give to present and future terrorists, and raised the painful equation of live terrorists being exchanged for dead bodies. Bringing fallen soldiers to kever Israel - burial in Israel - has always been regarded as sacrosanct; but if those terrorists return to their chosen line of business, as so many do, leaving more soldiers and citizens dead in their murderous wake, how then does the equation balance out? This question begs to be asked even as a Dahaf poll released over the weekend showed a significant majority of Israelis favoring Kuntar's release in return for the bodies of Regev and Goldwasser. Getting Kuntar back is of immense propaganda value to Nasrallah, who has promised his followers time and again that the burly Druse will lead the joyous line of released prisoners wending their way back home to the bosom of their families. And there is no doubt that Kuntar, who continues to glory in his exploits, will go on to inspire, plan and perhaps himself carry out as many acts of mischief against Jewish targets as he can fit into his working day. In February, in a letter to Nasrallah published in the Palestinian Authority newspaper Al-Hayat al-Jadida, he vowed to continue his struggle against the Zionist entity. "My oath and pledge is that my only place will be on the front lines... soaked in the sweat of your giving and the blood of those who are most dear, and that I will continue down the path until complete victory," he wrote. To Hizbullah, Kuntar has become an icon of the war against Israel. And this, perhaps, is the most compelling reason why he needs to remain under lock and key. IN THE 1990s, I wrote an op-ed about the unique and powerful nature of a symbol. The context was a very different one, though it also touched upon the killing of Jews. It was the controversial question of whether or not our national orchestra should perform Richard Wagner's music in Israel. The issue, I ventured, could not be decided on the basis of reason alone. "That we cheer the works of other composers who in their time were anti-Semites while we ban Wagner is quite true," I wrote. "Mussorgsky, Chopin and Wagner - all were anti-Semites. The difference between them is that Wagner has become a symbol of a demonic era." And a symbol has extraordinary ability to move and stir, to impassion and unite. Among the prisoners slated for release together with Kuntar are, more than likely, those who will return to terrorism of one kind or another, and that is not something to be minimized. The difference between them and Kuntar is that Kuntar has become a symbol. Like the wheelchair-bound Sheikh Yassin in his day, and like Fatah's imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, he has become larger than life, in and of himself a force to be reckoned with. Imagine the crowds, the songs, the posters and banners, the jubilation as Kuntar reenters his native land after three decades in Zionist captivity. Picture the baby face of his mentor, Nasrallah, glowing with satisfaction at having kept his promise to bring this son of Lebanon home. Then imagine the youthful and not-so-youthful hearts that will thrill to their hero's words, and the fighters who will ache to emulate his deeds. That's the power of a symbol. It is why Samir Kuntar must not be given his freedom.