There is something to be learned from the frenzied love-fest given in Beirut in mid-July to the most notorious of the Lebanese prisoners released by Israel. Samir Kuntar was sentenced to 542 years in prison for killing four people during a raid in 1979. Kuntar executed a father (Danny Haran) in front of his 4-year-old daughter, then killed the little girl by smashing her head against a rock with a rifle butt.
But to the Lebanese, Kuntar is a returning hero. He walked down a red carpet in Beirut. He was kissed by the Hezbollah leader and cheered like a rock star. In the southern port city of Sidon, posters of Kuntar adorned the streets and walkways as children rode by on their bicycles, no doubt dreaming of the day that they too could become “heroes” by murdering “Zionist” children.
When a banner in Beirut (according to the New York Times) proclaims “God’s Achievement Through Our Hands”; when The Beirut Daily Star (in other respects a decent newspaper) headline reads: “Nation Unites for Heroes’ Homecomings”; when the Free Patriotic Movement (supported by more than 70% of the Christian population in Lebanon) supports pro-Syrian forces in the May battles that took place in the streets of Beirut; when the second-in-command of the Lebanese Armed Forces (George Adwan) attends the Kuntar “homecoming” (in his words); when elected officials of the Lebanese government including its President Michel Suliman (who referred to Kuntar as a “freed hero”), prime minister Fouad Siniora, government ministers and many members of Lebanon’s pro-democracy March 14th Movement call on the Lebanese people to participate in the public celebration, declare it a national holiday, issue statements that the prisoner swap was an “historical victory … against the Israeli enemy and its hostile policies”, and call on all those participating to “raise the Lebanese flag” as a show of unity; when Parliamentary Speaker and Amal Shiite leader Nabih Berri and Progressive Socialist Party and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt declare the release of Kuntar to be “a day to celebrate freedom, martyrs and human rights”; when public departments, unions, businesses, municipalities and educational institutions across the nation close for the day in his honor; when shouts of joy and support fill the streets of Beirut and al-Manar television celebrates the “divine victory” over Israel – it would appear that Kuntar’s return was not merely being celebrated by Hezbollah supporters, but by the Lebanese people and their leaders.
Barry Rubin of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel has observed: “What horrifies me most are not radicals cheering terrorist Samir Kuntar, but that most relative moderates feel compelled to do so. At the airport to greet him were leaders of Lebanon’s anti-Syrian, anti-Iranian Druze and Christian groups as well as the ambassadors from Egypt, Jordan, the UAE and Morocco. To avoid being discredited, relative moderates must affirm that anyone who murders Israeli children is a hero.” It can of course be argued that Lebanese politics requires such posturing in order to create the illusion of national unity, but such posturing over the return of genocidal terrorists like Samir Kuntar may have significant consequences should a Third Lebanon War erupt.
During the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, the Siniora government was internationally recognized as a moderate counter-balance to Hezbollah in Lebanon. That international respectability prevented Israel from attacking a broad range of Lebanese targets requiring it to restrict its attacks primarily to Hezbollah missile launching sites, the Haret Hreik district of south Beirut where Hezbollah and its Al Manar television station were headquartered, the major airport runways at Beirut’s Rafiq Hariri International Airport (used to transit Hezbollah military personnel and weapons), the fuel reservoirs of the power station in Jiyyeh, twenty bridges over the Litani and Zahrani Rivers, a main highway leading to Beirut International Airport and two Lebanese military airfields (as a warning to the Lebanese military to stay out of what was then seen as a purely Israeli-Hezbollah conflict).
But events in recent months have altered the Lebanese political landscape in favor of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran blurring the lines between non-state and state actors. Hezbollah together with its foreign paymasters is now seen as the undisputed power-broker of Lebanon and the Lebanese government is gradually being relegated to puppet-status. Hezbollah holds veto power in the Lebanese parliament. The Lebanese Army is working with Hezbollah in south Lebanon and recently refused to intervene when pro-government forces were confronted by Hezbollah militias. The true military power in Lebanon today rests with Hezbollah. The important decisions relating to matters of war, peace and diplomacy are being made and conducted by Hezbollah. The border region with Israel is now being militarized under Hezbollah, and the power to carry out acts of war against Israel such as further kidnappings and the firing of missiles from southern Lebanon into Israeli civilian population centers rests solely with Hezbollah. In effect, by celebrating the return of Kuntar, the Lebanese have made (or at least created the perception of having made) common cause with Hezbollah against Israel and in so doing, they risk sharing Hezbollah’s fate.
The massive support shown for Kuntar throughout Lebanon, if taken at face value, has effectively re-defined the status of the Lebanese government (and, by extension, the Lebanese people) as the enemy of Israel. As Giora Eiland, the former chief of Israel’s National Security Council noted in Ynet News: “The only way to prevent another war is to make it clear that should war break out, Lebanon may be razed to the ground. Not only will the Lebanese government fear it, so would Hezbollah . . . This will deter the group, if it realizes that aggression on its part would result in destruction that would outrage the population and turn it against Hezbollah.” In effect, in the event of a Third Lebanon War, a vast array of strategic targets throughout Lebanon would no longer be immune from Israeli retaliation. By making common cause with Hezbollah, the Lebanese stand to reap the whirlwind.
The destruction of Lebanon would be a horrible outcome, but to the Israelis it is doubtless preferable to the destruction of Israel. Deterrence of further conflict is the preferred alternative. If Israel makes it clear that should war occur, it is the country as a whole, not just Hezbollah that will suffer, perhaps cooler heads will prevail in Lebanon.
The costs of the Second Lebanon War in terms of $5.6B in damages, 1,200 Lebanese killed and over 4,000 injured would pale by comparison if Hezbollah-led Lebanon engages Israel. The national celebrations for Kuntar in Lebanon, and that nation’s embrace of this murderer and his genocidal compatriots, not only reveal (again) the depths of Hezbollah’s moral bankruptcy, but also the readiness of other Lebanese to follow it into the abyss. In the next war, Hezbollah’s rearmament deep into northern Lebanon will force Israel to fight the terrorist army far beyond the Israeli-Lebanese border. The increasing influence of Hezbollah in the Lebanese government, along with cooperation between the country’s army and Hezbollah, have (to Lebanon’s great regret) made the terrorist organization an integral part of Lebanon’s military and the Lebanese state itself.