BOOM: Hezbollah Leader Killed in Israeli Airstrike

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A Lebanese man who was imprisoned for nearly three decades for his involvement in one of the most notorious attacks in Israel — and who later joined the Shiite militia Hezbollah — was killed in Syria, his family and the militia said on Sunday.

The killing of the man, Samir Kuntar, in a government-held neighborhood of Damascus on Saturday night, underscored the complexity of Syria’s civil war and the long arms of its many players.

Mr. Kuntar was a secular Lebanese who was born into the Druze community, an offshoot of Islam. He committed a gruesome attack in the name of liberating Palestine, and was imprisoned by Israel. He was freed in a prisoner exchange by Hezbollah and then was assigned an important mission in its war in Syria, where the militant Shiite group is fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, playing an increasingly crucial role in keeping him in power.

Some reactions to Mr. Kuntar’s death reflected the fall of Hezbollah itself in the estimation of the wider Arab and Muslim world since it veered from its usual mission fighting Israel to help Mr. Assad crush a rebellion dominated by members of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority.

“Hezbollah commander Samir Kuntar began by killing 4-year-old Israeli girl in 1979 and ended it killing Syrian people,” said Abdurahman Harkoush, a self-identified supporter of the Syrian insurgency, on Twitter.

The reports of Mr. Kuntar’s death also end a painful chapter for the families of Mr. Kuntar’s victims.

He was imprisoned in 1979 in Israel after he and three other Lebanese men conducted a cross-border attack in Nahariya, an Israeli coastal town, killing a policeman, and an Israeli man and his daughter, as the man’s wife accidentally smothered their other small child while trying to keep her quiet.

“It’s a kind of relief,” said Smadar Haran Kaiser, the only survivor of the attack. His footprints were “full of blood of victims,” she said in a call to reporters.

Mr. Kuntar’s brother confirmed his death on Sunday without giving details. But he called his brother a martyr, suggesting he died in the context of a battle or a military mission.

“With pride we mourn the martyrdom of the leader Samir Kuntar and we are honored to join families of martyrs,” Bassam Kuntar wrote on his Facebook page.

Hezbollah and its followers revered Mr. Kuntar for surviving nearly 30 years in Israeli prisons. The party’s official TV channel, Al Manar, praised him Sunday morning as “the dean of Arab detainees.”

The devastating 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, with its attendant suffering and political turmoil on both sides, started, in a way, because of him.

The war began after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, seeking bargaining chips for prisoner exchanges.

Two years later, Israel released Mr. Kuntar, along with four other Lebanese prisoners, in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in the 2006 raid.

Hezbollah had recently elevated Mr. Kuntar to an important position, leading the group’s operations in southern Syria along the frontier of the Israeli-held part of the Golan Heights.

But its expanded presence on the ground also raised speculation that Hezbollah was trying to secure a new foothold in Syrian territory near the Israeli-held Golan Heights.

Those efforts did not go smoothly, however, and more recently, Mr. Kuntar had a somewhat modified role, setting up a Hezbollah-trained militia in the southern province of Swaida, populated mainly by Syrian Druze.

Hezbollah swiftly blamed Israel for Mr. Kuntar’s death, an unusually quick confirmation. Over several years during the chaotic war in Syria, Israeli warplanes have struck targets inside Syria, several times said to be targeting weapons deliveries meant for Hezbollah.

Israel does not confirm its strikes in Syria officially, and the Syrian government has tended to downplay them, saying that it will respond when it deems appropriate.

Read more: NY Times


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