Last month, the U.S. State Department announced on its website that Samir Kuntar of Lebanon had attained the distinction of Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) under Executive Order 13224. According to the site, this means that “all property subject to U.S. jurisdiction in which Kuntar has any interest is blocked and U.S. persons are prohibited from engaging in transactions with him or to his benefit.”
Kuntar’s previous distinctions have included being Israel’s longest-held Lebanese prisoner, racking up 29 consecutive years in Israeli custody. The marathon began in April 1979, when a then 16-year-old Kuntar was apprehended in the Israeli coastal town of Nahariya during a botched operation organized by the Lebanon-based Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), a component of the PLO.
The aim of the operation, in which Kuntar and three companions sailed from Lebanon in a rubber dinghy, was to kidnap Israelis to use as bargaining chips for the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. In the end, two members of Kuntar’s team and five Israelis died, including two policemen and three members of the Haran family. Kuntar was sentenced to 542 years in prison for allegedly shooting 32-year-old Danny Haran in front of his four-year-old daughter Einat and then smashing the girl’s skull against a rock with his rifle butt – a version of events that Kuntar denies, as the world finally learned in 2008 when Israel deigned to release the relevant court transcripts.
In Kuntar’s version, the elder Haran was caught in a fatal hail of Israeli police bullets, while he claims to have had nothing to do with the demise of Einat. (Two-year-old Yael Haran also perished when her mother, trying to prevent the child from crying out, accidentally suffocated her as the two hid in a crawlspace.) A New York Times article contends: “That bloody night is seared into Israel’s national consciousness, one of the great tragedies in a country marked by them.”
Israeli journalist Chen Kotes-Bar concurs: “The Nahariya attack is considered the most brutal in Israel’s history. It is seared on the collective Israeli consciousness.” Kotes-Bar, who met with Kuntar in the prison library over a period of four years, reports having told him the following with regards to her five-year-old son: “Each time I wrap him in a towel after his bath … I think of Danny Haran and his daughter Einat. About the terror attack in Nahariya.”
Released in 2008 as part of a prisoner exchange orchestrated by Hezbollah, Kuntar was falsely rumored to have been taken out by an Israeli airstrike on Syria this past July, when Israeli media capitalized on the opportunity to anti-eulogize the “child-murdering terrorist.”
But even if we were to take the Israeli skull-smashing narrative at face value, such crimes don’t occur in a vacuum. The fact is that for the duration of its existence, Israel has far more often than not been the source rather than the victim of brutality and tragedy – and its actions have done a good bit of regional consciousness-searing, both on an individual and collective level.
Consider, for example, an anecdote contained in an article about Kuntar’s release, inexplicably appearing in the “Africa” section of the New York Times in 2008: “In 1978, Kuntar went to the Israeli-Lebanese border after Israel invaded southern Lebanon in March of that year. Both his stepmother and brother said Kuntar came back deeply affected by the deaths he had witnessed in that war.”
Indeed, that particular invasion killed approximately several thousand more people than did the operation by Kuntar & Co. in Nahariya. Israel’s next foray into Lebanon in 1982 produced about 20,000 fatalities, most of them Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, and served as the catalyst for the formation of Hezbollah. Periodic follow-ups have included the 1996 Israeli massacre of more than 100 civilians sheltering at a United Nations compound in Qana, south Lebanon, and the 2006 Israeli assault on the country that left an estimated 1,200 people dead, the majority of them civilians. This last episode was characterized by, among other atrocities, the close-range slaughter by helicopter of Lebanese children in a pickup truck and the charitable rush shipment of weapons from the U.S. to the Israelis – behavior which itself would seem to merit some sort of special global designation.
The 2006 war, which Israel subsequently admitted to having planned in advance, was sold as a response to Hezbollah’s abduction of two Israeli soldiers in an attempt to secure the release of Kuntar and other Arab prisoners. Two years after the bloody affair, the remains of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were repatriated to Israel in exchange for the usual extensive assortment of live and dead “terrorists,” once again underscoring the disproportionate value of Israeli bones.
Meanwhile, no moral assessment of Kuntar’s actions is possible outside the context of 1948, the original brutality of which necessarily renders ensuing pro-Palestinian operations reactive in nature. After all, the forced establishment of the state of Israel entailed the destruction of more than 530 Palestinian villages, the killing of some 10,000 Palestinians, and the expulsion from Palestine of a quarter of a million more. Forget searing the Palestinian consciousness; Israel aimed to obliterate it altogether.
And as if Palestinian moms didn’t already have more than enough to think about while towel drying their offspring, Israel’s destructive efforts are ongoing. According to the U.N., 551 of the 2,251 Palestinians killed during Operation Protective Edge last year were children. Sure, they may not have had their heads bashed in with the butt of a gun, but 2,000-pound fragmentation bombs tend to get the job done, too.
While, various international media expressed alarm in 2008 at the “hero’s welcome” accorded Kuntar upon his return to Lebanon, it’s worth pointing out that what was being celebrated was not the possibility that Kuntar might have played a role in the violent death of a child but rather that concessions had been forced from Israel – by no means a small feat.
In its explanation for Kuntar’s recent SDGT classification, the U.S. government notes that the repatriated Kuntar “was welcomed by Hezbollah, a U.S. Department of State-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, and he has since emerged as one of the group’s most visible and popular spokesmen.” This might be news to many Lebanese, but hey, the State Department knows best. Since his return, we are told, “He has also played an operational role, with the assistance of Iran and Syria, in building up Hezbollah’s terrorist infrastructure in the Golan Heights.”
It seems, then, that one possible motive for boosting Kuntar’s terror status may be to indicate that, although superficially adopting a more humanitarian approach to Iran via the nuclear deal, the U.S. remains committed to business as usual, i.e. a criminalization of anything anti-Israel.
Of course, global terrorism designations are never deemed applicable when, for example, the U.S. wipes out entire wedding parties in Afghanistan, slaughters Pakistani children in drone strikes, or eliminates half a million Iraqi children through sanctions. Somehow, praise and adoration for an imperial military engaged in the large-scale destruction of human life doesn’t constitute support for terrorism.
In the 2008 Times article filed under “Africa,” the author acknowledges that there are contradictory accounts as to what transpired on that April day in Nahariya, but contends that, “[w]hatever the truth, his kidnapping of a child casts an awkward light on Kuntar’s supposed heroism.” In that case, the U.S. has got awkward down to an art.
Belén Fernández is the author of “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.