Freed killer says he's ‘a symbol of resistance'

The skinny young brothers fidgeted in their plastic chairs as they gazed up at the beefy killer soaking in his first days of freedom after nearly three decades in Israeli prison.

“Do you know why we brought our kids to see you?” their father asked Samir Kuntar. “So they can be like you when they grow up.” Kuntar took a drag of his cigarette and smiled at the latest guests to come by his family home in the pine mountains near Beirut.

“They are our future,” said Kuntar, who celebrated his 46th birthday on Sunday surrounded by friends and family for the first time since he was a teenager. “And we're counting on them to continue our path.”

In the four days since Israel released Kuntar as part of a controversial prisoner swap between Israel and Hezbollah, the mustachioed militant has become an emblem of the uneasy political unity in Lebanon and the unresolved divisions cutting across the broader Middle East.

As part of the exchange, Hezbollah returned the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, Israeli soldiers mortally wounded on July 12, 2006 while patrolling the Lebanon border.

Kuntar's freedom is giving the Iran-backed Hezbollah more ammunition it its fight against Lebanon's directionless pro-Western politicians.

The unified reception Kuntar received has alarmed Israelis and Americans who don't understand why Lebanon declared a national holiday to honor a man convicted of killing four people in a 1979 attack, including a 4-year-old girl.

And Kuntar's freedom has underscored the difficulties Israel and Lebanon face in making peace any time soon.

“I am a symbol of resistance,” Kuntar said in his first interview with an American newspaper reporter since being freed. “And now that I am free, I will continue to focus entirely on this.”

Just what role he'll play isn't clear. Anonymous Israeli security officials are already sending ominous warnings that Kuntar should watch his back.

After learning Hebrew in prison and getting a sociology degree from his cell, Kuntar said he is eager to pick up a weapon to fight Israel again. Kuntar, a member of Lebanon's Druze community, staged his attack on Israel before Hezbollah came into existence.

Since being released last Wednesday, Kuntar has ceaselessly praised Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. Asked if he hoped to become the next Imad Mughnieyh, the Hezbollah military mastermind killed in February by a mysterious car bomb in Damascus, Kuntar laughed.

“God willing,” he said. “I wish I can play such a role.”