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Monday, 21 April 2014

Imagined letter from a Palestinian prisoner

17 April 2014

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Israel-Hezbollah Prisoner Exchange: Insecurity Grows in the Middle East

Created on 16 July 2008
Samir Kuntar prior to the 1979 operation in Naharia Samir Kuntar in PLF Camp prior to the 1979 military operation in Naharia

Two years after Israeli army reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were captured by Hezbollah guerillas in a cross-border raid, their bodies were brought back to Israel as part of a prisoner exchange.  

Along with four Hezbollah guerillas seized during Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon, Israel will also return Samir Kuntar, who has been imprisoned by Israel since 1979. Kuntar became a symbol of evil for Israeli public opinion, which blames him for the death of four Israelis, including Danny Haran and his four-year-old daughter Einat, during a military operation.

In the Israeli imagination, Samir Kuntar assassinated Einat Haran by smashing her head. However, Kuntar’s file, which was declassified only three days ago, makes different claims.

For almost 30 years, the contents of the Samir Kuntar file (File No. 578/79) were not authorized for publication. However, on July 13, Israeli court acceded to the request of the Hebrew-language daily Yediot Aharonot and allowed Kuntar's testimony, copies of the copious evidence and other testimonies in the file, the indictment and the judges' verdict, to be perused. 

On April 22, 1979, 16.5 years old Samir Kuntar led a group of four Popular Liberation Front (PLF) militants who entered Israel from Lebanon by boat. The group members included Abdel Majeed Asslan, Mhanna Salim Al-Muayed and Ahmed AlAbras. The group departed from the seashore of Tyre in southern Lebanon using a motorized rubber boat. The goal of the operation was to attack Nahariya, 10 kilometers away from the Lebanese border. They dubbed their operation the “Nasser Operation.”

 They all belonged to the PLF, a splinter from Ahmad Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, under the leadership of Muhammad Zaydan (Abu Abbas).

According to the Kuntar’s declassified file, he reached Nahariya beach at 2:30 in the morning. "We tied our boat to a rock,” he testified on January 6, 1980. “We had instructions to avoid opening fire, to take hostages and bring them to Lebanon. I was commander of the cell. I planned to knock on the door at one of the houses. Majeed and I walked towards the building. I told him to ring the bell but not to speak, because I planned to speak English with the people living there. When we went in, Majeed buzzed one of the apartments, and Majeed spoke to the woman in Arabic and she answered him in Hebrew. He made a mistake and she didn't open the door.” 

He continues, “I then heard the sound of a car driving up and stopping... I opened fire, and then we went up to one of the apartments, where we pulled out a man and a girl so we could take them with us. I decided we should take the girl with us to ensure we would stay alive, and then return her from Lebanon to Israel via the Red Cross.

“While we were with them, shots were fired at us... I shot some rounds at those people with my Kalashnikov rifle and hit one of them; he went down. When I saw the boat had been hit... we tried to retreat by land and escape the gunfire coming our way... The army began an assault on us... I wanted to find a way to tell them to stop shooting at us, because our whole objective was to take hostages to Lebanon. But I didn't have a megaphone... I was hit by five bullets. Then [Danny] Haran got to his feet and signaled to the army forces with his hand to stop them from firing. He was hit by the bullets being shot at him by the soldiers. The five bullets that hit me struck sensitive places, so I lost a lot of blood and passed out. I didn't know what else was happening with me until I woke up in the morning and found myself in the military's hands. I didn't hurt the girl at all and I didn't see how she met her death.”

In court, prosecution witnesses testified that Kuntar killed Danny and Einat Haran. Kuntar and Ahmed Al Abras, a second guerrilla that survived the operation, were sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. However, Alabras was freed by Israel in the Ahmed Jibril prisoner exchange deal in May 1985 but Israel refused to release Kuntar, later stating that he may be released only in exchange for the missing Israeli Weapon System Officer, Ron Arad. Israel’s continuous refusal to release Kuntar during the many prisoner exchanges that have since occurred made him a symbol for the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance, and his release became an objective for Hezbollah.

Regev and Goldwasser were captured during the Hezbollah’s cross border operation of July 12, 2006 nearby Zar’it in northern Israel. The operation was similar to a former operation carried out by Hezbollah in the area of the Shebaa Farms in the border of Israel with Syria and Lebanon in the Occupied Golan on October 7, 2000, and was aimed at the release of Kuntar through an anticipated prisoner exchange.  However, the Israeli civil and military leadership decided to transform this border skirmish into a full-fledged war against Lebanon, with the objective to retrieve the captured soldiers and restore Israel’s power of deterrence in the region. Israel’s decision was due in part to the fact that a month earlier, Hamas and other Palestinian factions abducted a soldier (Gilad Shalit) on the border of the Gaza Strip. 

Friends and family of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser demonstrate for their release Friends and family of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser demonstrate in Jerusalem  for their release

Israel’s war on Lebanon failed in both objectives: it could not return the abducted soldiers and the country’s power of deterrence was further eroded.  Moreover, Hezbollah’s political presence in Lebanon was strengthened and Israel forced to negotiate a prisoner exchange with the organization without knowing if the captured soldiers were alive or dead. 

Two years after the capture of Regev and Goldwasser, the prisoner exchange of 16 July 2008 seals Israel’s military and political defeat. However, it does not signal the end of tension on the border. In addition to its successful release of all Lebanese citizens abducted by Israel, the Hezbollah aims to end the Israeli occupation of the Shebaa Farms, considered as part of the Lebanese territory by the organization. The military operation of July 2006 proved that Israel is ready to negotiate only under military pressure and that when military pressure is exerted, it collapses and is ready to give in to all demands.  This also means that Israel’s power of deterrence, on which the Israeli army has traditionally based its military doctrine, is totally eroded.

Israel’s strategic need to restore its power of deterrence, coupled with Hezbollah’s understanding that Israel will give in to political demands under military pressures, promises future wars and military instability in the region.