Who Was Samir Kuntar and Why Exactly Did Israelis Despise Him So?

The top Hezbollah operative is believed dead in a Syrian airstrike Saturday; The IDF is suspected behind the attack, though it is unconfirmed.

Samir Kuntar poses for a picture during an interview on the outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon, October 22, 2008.
Samir Kuntar poses for a picture during an interview on the outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon, October 22, 2008. AFP

Top Hezbollah operative, Samir Kuntar, 53, who was responsible for one of the most traumatic terror attacks in Israeli history, is believed to have been killed in a Syrian airstrike on Damascus Saturday, which Hezbollah sources are claiming was carried out by the Israeli Defense Forces.

Israeli officials praised the assassination, though were unable to confirm whether Israel was responsible for the attack. Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said he would not be sorry if the reports of Israel's involvement turned out to be true. "Kuntar was an evil man," he said before a cabinet meeting. "It's possible that Finnish intelligence was at work here, and did a good job."

Israelis' abhorrence of Kuntar spans back nearly three decades, when he led and orchestrated one of the most ruthless attacks that still lives in the Israeli consciousness.  

Syrian pro-government forces standing guard next to a building, targeted by an air raid that killed Samir Kuntar, Damascus, December 20, 2015.
AFP

In the cover of darkness on April 22, 1979, Kuntar, then 16, led a Palestinian Liberation Front attack that brutally murdered a family in the northern town of Nahariya and an Israeli police officer. From southern Lebanon, Kuntar and his accomplices snuck into Israel via the sea, and then broke into a family's apartment. There, they kidnapped a young father, Danny Haran, and his 4-year-old daughter Einat.

Kuntar took the father and his young daughter to the nearby beach. There, he shot the father, and had the daughter, Einat, watch as he drowned her father underwater to ensure he was completely dead. Then, he smashed the young girl's head against a nearby rock with the butt of his gun.

As Kuntar was kidnapping the father and daughter, the mother, Smadar, grabbed their 2-year old baby, Yael, and hid from the men who breached her home. As Samadar tried to keep her baby quiet to keep them from being found, her daughter suffocated in her arms.

Kuntar was caught after a shootout with police, but the damage was done. By morning, one out of the four Harans was left alive.

Israelis still identify this attack as one of the most brutal in the history of the Jewish state.  

But that is not the end of Kuntar's tale. In 1985, four members of the PLF hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship sailing from Alexandria, Egypt to Ashdod, in southern Israel, in an attempt to gain negotiating power for Kuntar's release. The attempt was unsuccessful, but the assailants killed a disabled, wheelchair- bound American Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer. A hotly contested opera of the hijacking and the murder, "The Death of Klinghoffer," was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City last season, much to the chagrin of right wing activists groups, claiming the libretto was anti-Semitic. In this, the hijacking's legacy lives on.   

Two decades later, after several failed negotiation attempts, Kuntar was freed. In 2008, Kuntar along with four other Hezbollah operatives was released in a prisoner exchange to return the bodies of Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who were abducted by Hezbollah in a cross-border operation that sparked the Second Lebanon War.

Upon Kuntar's release, he received a hero's welcome in Lebanon and Syria, being personally received by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and by Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah, and receiving Syria's highest medal from President Bashar Assad. In 2009, he was awarded an honorary salute by former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during a ceremony in honor of former political prisoners.

Samir Kuntar and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, at a stadium in Beirut's southern suburbs, July 16, 2008.
AFP

Soon thereafter, Kuntar joined and started climbing the ranks in Hezbollah, and repeatedly pledged to 'confront' Israel. For years, he was quoted as calling Israel a "disease" that needs to be taken care of.

Kuntar, Arab media reports, has quietly been responsible for building infrastructure near the Golan Heights in order to launch attacks against Israel, and has been fighting on behalf of the Assad regime in the current Syrian civil war.

Smadar Haran, whose family was murdered by Kuntar's actions, told Israel's Army Radio Sunday that his killing was a "historic justice."