At the top of the list of prisoners Hezbollah says it wants in exchange for two captured Israeli soldiers is Samir Kuntar, the Lebanese prisoner believed to be the longest-held in Israel.
Family members in Beirut are hopeful that Israel will release Kuntar, who is serving multiple life sentences for murder and terrorism in Hadarim Prison for his role in a 1979 raid on a Jewish settlement that left four people dead, including a 4-year-old girl.
“I feel that it is finally time for him,” said Bassam Kuntar, a Beirut newspaper editor who was an infant when his brother, then 16, went off on a mission inside Israel for the Palestine Liberation Front.
In 2004, Israel was widely reported to be willing to release Kuntar in exchange for information from Hezbollah about the fate of Israeli airman Ron Arad, who has been missing since his plane was downed over Lebanon in 1986.
One of Kuntar’s three partners in the 1979 Nahariya raid, Ahmed Assad Abaras, was released from custody in an earlier prisoner swap.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, quoting government sources, reported that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his government were prepared for a prisoner exchange as a step in the way out of the current crisis. However, the newspaper reported that the Olmert government would not make a deal for Kuntar, who was arrested 27 years ago.
While in jail, his brother says, Kuntar has learned English and Hebrew and earned a degree in sociology from the Open University of Israel in Tel Aviv. His senior thesis, written in Hebrew, was titled “The Contradiction of Democracy and Security in Israel.”
The Kuntars are members of the minority population of Lebanese Druze, an offshoot of Shiism. They come from the Aley area of Mt. Lebanon overlooking Beirut, where Samir Kuntar was recruited by Palestinian refugees into a militant offshoot of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The Palestine Liberation Front has been associated with several notorious operations, including the 1984 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro.
When the cruise ship hijackers listed their demands, Kuntar’s release topped the list.
This week, Kuntar’s family appealed to the families of Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser, 31, and Eldad Regev, 26, to put pressure on the Israeli government for Samir Kuntar’s release. The two soldiers were captured in the July 12 Hezbollah raid inside Israel that set off the current conflict.
Prisoner swapping is a common and deadly game in the Middle East.
Lebanese Minister of Labor Tarrad Hamadeh, a university philosophy professor and Hezbollah sympathizer, said in an interview that the main motive for the group’s brash July 12 raid was to grab hostages to use as bargaining chips in a prisoner trade for three Lebanese it says are in Israel’s jails.
The two other names on Hezbollah’s list are Yahia Skaff, 46, and Nassim Nisr, 38.
Israel has not confirmed that it is holding Skaff, a Lebanese Sunni Muslim accused of taking part in a 1978 attack near Haifa in which 11 Fatah fighters infiltrated Israel by sea.
They killed a photographer at a beachfront kibbutz, then killed a taxi driver and hijacked a passenger bus, shooting at cars from the bus. In all, 35 people were killed and nearly 100 injured.
Despite Israel’s failure to confirm that it holds Skaff, his northern Lebanon family, like the Kuntars, still harbors hopes that he will be released as part of the settlement in the current conflict.
“The only news we have of him is from former detainees,” said brother Jamal Skaff, 44, a car parts dealer in Minieh, near Tripoli.
“More recently, in 2000, we were able to obtain a document from the International Red Cross that gave us the right to know where he was being held.” Jamal Skaff says his brother is being held at a secret prison.
“It’s really sad for you to lose your brother for such a long time,” he said. “It will certainly be a moment of great emotion when we see him again.”
The final name on the exchange list, Nisr, is the only one with alleged connections to Hezbollah.
A Lebanese-born Israeli citizen, Nisr is the son of a Jewish mother and a Shiite father. He was living in the industrial town of Holon when he was arrested in 2002 and convicted of spying for Hezbollah.
Complaining about financial hardship to his brother, he was put in contact with Hezbollah, which allegedly asked him to provide a detailed map and photographs of Tel Aviv gas and electricity facilities.
Nisr denied that he was a spy. His attorney claimed on his behalf that Nisr had acted to protect his family in Lebanon. He was sentenced to six years in jail in 2002.
In his office in the newly launched El Akhbar newspaper in Beirut, journalist Bassam Kuntar sits amid prison photographs of a brother he never really knew and with whom he has talked only twice, in short telephone calls permitted by Israeli authorities.
“The problem with my brother is that he is too famous,” said Bassam Kuntar, who operates a website urging his brother’s release.
“If you go into a pub in Israel and call out his name, everyone will know it.”
Special correspondent Maha al-Azar in Beirut contributed to this report.