(Autumn 1995) Samir Kuntar should hate Israel. Orphaned by Israeli warplanes, raised in fetid refugee camps and befriended only by Palestinian terrorists, Samir Kuntar would appear to have many reasons to seek revenge. Add to this background another 16 years in an Israeli prison, and Kuntar should be a rabid Jew-hater. Yet, Kuntar is asking Israelis and Palestinians alike to cease their violence and try to live together in peace.
Kuntar made that public appeal in late May, from deep within Beersheva Prison, the only home the 34-year-old man has known for his entire adult life.
A convicted terrorist, whose 1979 attack left four dead, including two very young children, Kuntar has spent 16 of his 34 years in Israeli jails. He has no hope of parole. After his death, two more consecutive life sentences remain.
Until he spoke out for peace in May, his comrades had seen him as a hero, a martyr, someone to be admired and, perhaps, rescued. Kuntar's name has been at the top of almost every hostage exchange list since he was taken prisoner in 1979.
Now Kuntar is asking his fellow Palestinians to refrain from hostile action to gain his release. If a violent act of terrorism caused his jailers to open his cell doors, the convicted terrorist now says, he would not leave. He says he could not accept freedom gained by another bloody encounter.
Israel holds captive many of Kuntar's comrades. Most of them have allowed their hate to fester. They plan for revenge. But not Kuntar, who has used the time to read and study, to acquire an education by correspondence school and, he says, to search his soul.
Many of the men who trained him for terrorism, and their backers in Iran and other countries, continue to call for war, but Kuntar has come to the conclusion that peace holds the only hope for his people. Decisions made by Palestinian and Israeli leaders to commit "violence against civilians was a terrible mistake; a boomerang," Kuntar said in a interview from his cell in late May. Both Israeli and Palestinians have suffered, he told a reporter for an Israeli newspaper, and they must learn how much each has suffered. They must also learn that the only way to end their mutual suffering and find hope in the future lies in the peace process.
Kuntar's plea is hoped by many to represent a turning point in the history of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Despite the progress made by Yasser Arafat and the PLO, a call for peace from a hard-line terrorist of the old school is something new. A statement that the violence of the past was a mistake is even rarer. There are still many, on both sides, who want to continue to fight. Indeed, many appear eager to die to fuel the hatred between Israelis and Palestinians.
One of these is Munir Maqdah, commander of the "Lion Cubs" of Ain Helweh. A former PLO official who broke away from the organization after it made peace with Israel two years ago, Maqdah is training young Palestinians, his "Lion Cubs," to be human bombs. Many of the 40 recruits in his class at the Ain Helweh refugee camp in Lebanon are only 14 or 15 years old. That is only slightly older than Kuntar was when he began his terrorist training. Like Kuntar, most are orphans, some of their parents having been killed in Israeli attacks. They see nothing to live for but revenge.
"I am not scared of dying, I want to free Palestine," one teen-age recruit explains. He is among those boys and girls whom Maqdah and his lieutenant, Jamal the "sheikh," say they are teaching "to love death." Kuntar was taught much the same lesson nearly 20 years ago. "We are preparing them for the Jihad, the holy war of Islam, and to love death to this end. They will have just one choice," Jamal says, "victory or martyrdom." These "human bombs," as Maqdah calls them, are "the only language the enemy understands."
Fathi Shakaki, the chief of the Islamic Jihad terrorist organization, says that "thousands" of Palestinians are on a "waiting list" to be trained for "suicide attacks." His group and their allies in the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) conducted two such suicide bombings in early April. Seven Israeli soldiers and a foreign tourist were killed, and 50 other people were wounded in those attacks.
Such operations gain applause in Iran, an active supporter of Islamic Jihad, Hamas and other anti-Israeli terrorist groups. Iran backs operations not only against Israelis, but against Jews and Jewish interests worldwide. It is suspected of complicity in attacks as seemingly unrelated and far afield as the 1994 bombings against Jewish groups in Buenos Aires and London, as well as recent attacks by its proxy forces in Israel, Algeria, Egypt and parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the Persian Gulf. A few months ago Iran warned Arab states, especially those in the Gulf region, to avoid all contact with Israel, which it calls "the Jerusalem occupying regime." Those who do not heed this warning, Iran noted in a very slightly veiled threat, run the risk of internal "discord."
Iran is the spiritual and material parent of both of these organizations. Hamas views Iran as a rich friend, sympathetic to its own desire to establish a strong Palestinian state where Israel now stands. Islamic Jihad, however, sees Iran as a model not just for a future Palestinian state, but for the whole Moslem world.
To many in these groups, as one terrorist recruit explains "the way to God is by killing Jews." "The world is too small for us," Palestinian fighter and would-be suicide bomber Kamal Radi says.
Sixteen years ago, Samir Kuntar felt the same way. He was the same age as Radi when he and three comrades attacked the Israeli town of Nahariya. One terrorist killed a police officer. Another shot a male civilian and smashed the head of his four-year-old daughter against a rock. The man's wife tried to shield their two-year-old from the bullets and bombs; the child suffocated in her mother's arms. It was Kuntar's first and last act of violence. He hopes that, because of his words, no other Palestinian or Israeli will have to live with the horror that fills his mind daily.