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Notorious Hezbollah operative slain in Syria airstrike

The leader of a notorious 1979 attack on an Israeli family -- who later became a prominent operative with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah -- has been killed in an airstrike in Syria, according to official and media accounts Sunday.

Hezbollah blamed an Israeli rocket barrage for the death of Samir Quntar, who spent almost 30 years in Israeli lockups for his role in the brazen 1979 attack in which a father and his 4-year-old daughter were kidnapped and slain.

Quntar was freed in 2008 along with four other Lebanese prisoners in exchange for the remains of two Israeli soldiers.

Quntar has since played a high-profile role with Hezbollah, a close ally of Iran, Israel’s regional arch-enemy. Hezbollah, which is assisting the Syrian government forces in its ongoing civil war, is deemed a terrorist organization by both the U.S. and Israel.

In a statement issued Sunday, Hezbollah said Quntar — whom it lauds as “the dean of Lebanese prisoners” — was “martyred” when warplanes of the “Zionist enemy” fired missiles at a residential building in Jaramana, a southern suburb of Damascus, the Syrian capital.

There was no direct confirmation from Israel, which generally refrains from commenting on airstrikes inside Syria.

Lebanese broadcaster Al-Mayadeen reported that the attack was conducted by two Israeli aircraft that hovered close to the Israeli-Syrian border area of Lake Tiberias before firing four missiles toward Jaramana, a stronghold of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The Syrian state media reported that Kuntar was killed along with “several” others “in a hostile terrorist rocket strike” on a residential building in Jaramana.

Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister for infrastructure, would not comment on the reports but said Kuntar was “no small villain” and he doubted “anyone would be sorry” if accounts of his demise were accurate.

In 1979, Quntar, a member of the Druze sect who was then 16, led a guerrilla squad whose actions remain seared in the minds of Israelis.

Infiltrating northern Israel by sea, Quntar and three others killed a policeman in the town of Nahariya and entered the apartment of the Haran family, seizing Danny Haran and his 4-year-old daughter as hostages and taking them to a nearby beach.

Quntar shot the father dead and was also accused of killing the child by smashing her skull with his rifle butt, a charge he vehemently denied.

Smadar Haran fled with her other daughter, aged 2, to a crawl space and inadvertently smothered the child to death while trying to silence her as the pair hid from the intruders.

Captured after the attack, Quntar became one of Israel’s longest held prisoners, and was embraced by Hezbollah as a symbol, though the attack long pre-dated the Shiite Islamist group’s founding. Israel released Quntar in 2008 in an exchange for the remains of two Israeli reservists killed in a 2006 cross-border incident that sparked a monthlong war between Hezbollah and Israel.

“Justice has been done,” Smadar Haran, the only family member to survive the 1979 attack, told Israeli media Sunday. Israel had “settled its debt,” she added.

Many Israelis were enraged when Hezbollah gave the ex-prisoner a hero’s welcome upon his return to Lebanon.

Quntar soon emerged as an informal spokesman for Hezbollah, making regular appearances beside the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and speaking at rallies.

Quntar also took on an operational role, and was aided by Iran and Syria in building up Hezbollah's “terrorist infrastructure in the Golan Heights,” according to a U.S. State Department press release last year that labeled Quntar a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” subject to financial sanctions and other penalties.

Quntar became “a pivot in the efforts of Hezbollah” to reshape the Golan Heights as a front against Israel, according to Yakov Amidror, a researcher with the BESA Center at Bar Ilan University and Israel’s former national security advisor. Israel has occupied much of the Golan Heights since 1967.

Hezbollah, a dominant military, political and social force in Lebanon, is deeply involved in the war raging in Syria. Its cadres, working in concert with Iranian advisors, have bolstered Syrian government forces throughout the country, especially near the Lebanese-Syrian border but also in the area of the Golan Heights.

Hezbollah and Damascus have accused Israel of providing medical and material support to Syrian rebels, including Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters. Israel counters that it is only treating wounded regardless of their affiliation.

Israel is one of a number of nations, including the United States and Russia, that have conducted bombing runs in war-ravaged Syria, though the Israeli government has seldom publicly acknowledged its involvement. The skies above Syria have become heavily congested with foreign attack jets.

Previous airstrikes inside Syria attributed to Israel have reportedly targeted weapons convoys and positions of Hezbollah. Israeli officials have said they are committed to blocking the transfer of advanced, strategic weaponry to Hezbollah via Syrian territory.

Unlike warplanes of Russia and the U.S.-led coalition, Israeli aircraft are not known to have attacked the Syrian opposition, whose ranks are dominated by Sunni Islamist factions. Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim-led group hostile to Sunni militants such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State.

In January, an Israeli missile strike killed a top Hezbollah commander and Iranian general while the pair were on a reconnaissance mission in the Quneitra area of southern Syria. Hezbollah forces later retaliated with a rocket attack against Israeli forces, killing two Israeli soldiers.

Israel’s targeting of Hezbollah reflects Israel's broader security stance in the region. Many Israeli officials regard Iran and Hezbollah as Israel’s gravest external threats.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Staff writer McDonnell reported from Beirut. Special correspondent Bulos reported from Beirut and Sobelman from Jerusalem.

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