Hezbollah: Samir Kuntar Killed in Israeli Airstrike on Damascus

Strike reportedly killed several people, among them Hezbollah field commanders; Kuntar was imprisoned in Israel for murder of Nahariya family, but was freed in prisoner swap.

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

Hezbollah announced on Sunday morning that one of its top officials, Samir Kuntar, was killed in an Israeli airstrike on a Damascus suburb. 

In the statement, the group said the "Zionist enemy's planes" struck a building in Jaramana, a district of Damascus, around 10:15 P.M. on Saturday, killing Kuntar and several Syrian civilians. 

According to reports, between six and eight people were killed in the strike, among them also Hezbollah field commanders.  

Site of bombing that killed Hezbollah leader Samir Kuntar in Damascus' Jaramana district.

Israel did not take responsibility for the assassination. Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz refused to address reports on Sunday but said he would not be sorry if they turned out to be true. "Kuntar was an evil man," he said before a cabinet meeting. "Perhaps Finnish intelligence was at work here, and did a good job."

The Israeli security cabinet was expected to convene on Sunday afternoon. A senior official in Jerusalem said that the meeting was set prior to the assassination. 

Kuntar spent nearly three decades in an Israeli prison for carrying out one of the most notorious attacks in Israeli history. He was released in 2008 in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah in 2006, whose capture sparked a 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah. His release was highly controversial in Israel, where he is believed to be the perpetrator of one of the most grisly attacks in Israeli history.

As a teenager, Kuntar joined a Palestinian militant group known as the Palestine Liberation Front at the height of Palestinian-Israeli violence in the Middle East and at a time when most Palestinian groups were based in Lebanon.

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

Kuntar was imprisoned in 1979 in Israel and sentenced to three life terms after he and three other Lebanese infiltrated the country 1979 and staged an attack in the northern coastal town of Nahariya, killing a policeman and then kidnapping a man, Danny Haran, and his 4-year-old daughter and killing them outside their home.

Israel says Kuntar, who was 16 at the time, beat the girl to death by bashing her head with a rifle butt. He denies this, saying the girl was killed in the crossfire. As the attack unfolded, the girl's mother, Smadar Haran, hid inside a crawl space inside their home and accidentally smothered their crying 2-year-old daughter, fearing Kuntar would find them.

The widow, Smadar Haran, told Israel's Army Radio Sunday that Kuntar's killing was a "historic justice."

Danny Haran's brother, Roni Keren, said on Sunday that Kuntar's death "closes a circle for one of the cruelest murderers." 

Kuntar is believed to have rejoined Hezbollah after his release in 2008.

The National Defence Forces in Jaramana, which are part of a nationwide grouping of loyalist Syrian militias under the umbrella of the army, mourned Kuntar and one of its commanders on its Facebook page.

"Two Israeli warplanes carried out the raid which targeted the building in Jaramana and struck the designated place with four long-range missiles," the NDF in Jaramana Facebook page said. Jaramana is a bastion of government support and is the home of many of Syria's Druze minority as well as Christians.

Kuntar's brother mourned him on his Facebook page on Sunday without giving details about his death, but said his brother was a martyr. "With pride we mourn the martyrdom of the leader Samir Kuntar and we are honored to join families of martyrs," Bassam Kuntar said.

Hamas condemned the "Israeli assassination" on Twitter, calling it a "heinous crime." 

Kuntar was engaged in anti-Israeli activities in recent years. According to the defense establishment, he was involved in an effort to establish terrorist cells that would carry out attacks against Israel. It was then reported that Kuntar set up the terrorist infrastructure on behalf of Hezbollah, with Iranian and Syrian assistance.

He recruited Syrians as well as Palestinians and was responsible for a number of attacks, including the laying of an explosive charge in the Golan Heights that wounded four Israeli paratroopers, one of them seriously, in March of last year. In addition, Kuntar and his associates fired 107 millimeter rockets at Israel.

After Kuntar's deputy was assassinated, Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of the Imad Mughniyeh, was dispatched to set up additional terrorist infrastructure. The fighters underwent training in Syria.

Last January, the younger Mughniyeh and Iranian General Mohammad Ali Allahdadi were killed in an attack attributed to Israel in the Syrian controlled-Golan Heights. According to reports, Mughniyeh and the Iranian general and a number of other activists were on a “commander tour” in advance of carrying out additional attacks in the region.

Following the incident, Israel raised its security alert level, and Hezbollah fired an anti-tank missile at an IDF vehicle in the Har Dov area near the Lebanon border. Two soldiers were killed and seven were lightly to moderately wounded in the attack. Hezbollah also fired some mortar shells at Har Dov, the Hermon and the village of Ghajar, where a house was hit. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said then that his organization would respond to any violation of Lebanon's sovereignty and to any assault on his people, wherever they may be.

Last year, Israeli defense officials estimated that Kuntar, with Iranian backing, was responsible for a cell that tried to place a mine on the Israel-Syria border in the Golan Heights. The group was stopped by an Israeli airstrike, and four cell members were killed. According to reports in Majdal Shams, the Druze town in the Israeli Golan Heights, two of the four had lived in the town in the past. 

One of the people killed alongside Kuntar on Saturday was Farhan Issam Shaalan, who left the village of Ein Qiniyye on the Golan Heights with his father following the Six-Day War. The father is recognized as the mukhtar of Druze who left the Golan to Syria, while the son was active in militias that support the Assad regime. Residents of the Golan told Haaretz that death notices were hung in Druze villages in the area. A few of Shaalan's sisters reside in Ein Qiniyye and other villages on the Golan.