Amid controversy, but with a surprising degree of consensus, Israel decided to pay a huge price for the bodies of two dead soldiers, and many don’t understand how they could have made such a deal—exchanging five live terrorists and 199 bodies of Arab fighters for two Israeli soldiers in coffins.
They have made lopsided deals before, even exchanging live prisoners for dead bodies, but this one seemed particularly painful. One of the five terrorists freed was a savage murderer. He is Samir Kantar, serving three consecutive life sentences for crimes committed in 1979. According to the Associated Press, here is what he did:
Kantar was the leader; he and his fellow terrorists infiltrated northern Israel from Lebanon, by sea, in a rubber dinghy. Their mission: to kidnap or kill Israelis. They killed two policemen. Then they broke into the apartment of the Haran family in Nahariya, a few miles from the Lebanese border. They took the father and one daughter down to the beach, but their dinghy had been punctured by bullets.
Kantar himself shot Danny Haran in the back, killing him in full view of his four-year-old daughter. Then, with his rifle butt, he smashed the child’s head. Smadar Haran, her mother, said recently, “He smashed her head, and she didn’t die immediately, so he smashed it again and again.” Kantar denies that he deliberately killed anyone.
I urge you to watch the brief video and hear this little girl’s mother say what she saw. Yet what she doesn’t say is even more horrific. Not possible, you say? Well, her two-year-old daughter Yael also died in the attack—accidentally smothered by her mother, who was trying to keep her from crying out and being killed as well.
Kantar returned to Lebanon yesterday and received a hero’s welcome. Literally, they laid out a red carpet for him, which he strode along in army fatigues, masquerading as a soldier. "This time yesterday I was in the hands of the enemy,” he said at a second ceremony, “But at this moment, I am yearning more than before to confront them”–so much for contrition after almost thirty years.
I wonder what would have happened if an Israeli had gone to Lebanon and been captured after such acts? Hmm. Israel gave Kantar a fair trial. It has no death penalty except in cases of genocide, so he was serving three consecutive life sentences. In prison, he completed a master’s degree; his thesis, in Hebrew, was about the flaws in Israel’s democracy.
In exchange for him, other terrorists or militants, and the bodies of almost two hundred Hezbollah soldiers killed in battle, Israel got back the bodies of two soldiers. They’d been kidnapped by Hezbollah in July 2006, triggering the Second Lebanon War. Israel’s army is in a way like the U.S. Marines: No Marine Left Behind, period. But it is hard to imagine a U.S. government releasing a vicious child-murderer to recover two bodies.
According to critics inside Israel, the families of the two soldiers, aided by the media, conducted a two-year-long, well-funded campaign that won over popular opinion. Little was heard from the wife and mother of Samir Kantar’s victims. Few politicians were able to resist the pressure, least of all a prime minister riding for a fall.
Certainly the enemies of Israel were watching, and they may have gotten a very unfortunate message. A young architect in Ramallah, Samar Mohammed, said, "Nobody would have expected that Israel would give up the likes of Samir Kantar. Hezbollah has shown that they are mighty people, and Israel is afraid of them and had to meet their demands."
An Israeli security expert said, “What we've done now has made kidnapping soldiers the most profitable game in town." Another pointed out that after the next kidnapping, Hezbollah will have no incentive to go to the trouble of keeping the captives alive.
The funerals held today for the two soldiers were well attended and moving. The families were grateful at last to be able to give their sons a proper burial according to Jewish law. There is a powerful Jewish tradition called pidyon sh’vuyim—the Redemption of Captives—which is considered to take precedence over almost everything else. It was a case at least of the remains of captives. Yesterday there were a few cries of revenge among the mourners outside one of the soldiers’ homes: “Nasrallah,” they said, referring to the leader of Hezbollah, “you will pay.”
But the main notes struck were those of grief over the deaths, gratitude for the redemption of the bodies, and commitment to those who serve and fall. Former prime minister and current defense minister Ehud Barak spoke to a group of soldiers at one of the funerals: "If the worst will happen to any of you, Israel will make every possible and legitimate effort … to bring you home.”
As one commentator said, Israel cannot have a committed citizen army without abiding by this promise—in that sense the exchange was itself dictated by the pragmatic politics of war, which depends in part on national pride and willingness to sacrifice. Barak’s promise to the soldiers was neither idle nor unnecessary.
But if I were Smadar Haran, who lived to see her family’s murderer released by her own government to a red carpet welcome in Beirut—I don’t know her, but I know myself–the only thing I would remember from these memorial events would be the cries of revenge.