Israel Frees Notorious Hezbollah Prisoner as Part of Exchange With Lebanon

The last time the mother of Lebanon's longest held prisoner in Israel saw her son, he said goodbye and told her he would be back in two days.

Three decades later, Samir Kantar — the perpetrator of one of the most notorious attacks in Israeli history — is set to return home this week as part of a prisoner swap between Israel and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah.

"The two days lasted thirty years," Kantar's mother, Siham, told The Associated Press on Monday while sitting on the balcony of her house in Abey, a mountain town 10 miles south of Beirut.

Israel plans to free five Lebanese prisoners, including Kantar, on Wednesday. In exchange, Hezbollah says it will return two soldiers it captured in 2006 that set off a monthlong war between Israel and the militant group. Israel believes the soldiers are dead.

Kantar is serving multiple life terms in Israel after he and three other Lebanese infiltrated Israel and staged a grisly 1979 attack in the northern coastal town of Nahriya. An Israeli court convicted Kantar of killing a policeman and then kidnapping a man and his 4-year-old daughter and killing them outside their home.

Two of his co-conspirators were killed in a shootout with police. The third was also convicted and sent back to Lebanon in the 1980s as part of a prisoner swap.

Israel says Kantar, who was 16 at the time, brutally beat the girl to death by bashing her head with a rifle. He denies this, saying the girl was killed in the crossfire. As the attack unfolded, the girl's mother hid inside a crawl space inside their home and accidentally smothered their crying 2-year-old daughter, fearing Kantar would find them.

His release has stirred emotional opposition in Israel from relatives of victims of the attack and others.

But in Abey, streets are decorated with banners welcoming the return of the former member of the radical Palestine Liberation Front. "Samir Kantar is the conscience of Lebanon, Palestine and the Arab nation. Abey welcomes the hero, prisoner Samir Kantar," reads one sign.

Ceremonies are also planned in Lebanon for the prisoners including one on Wednesday in the Hezbollah stronghold of southern Beirut and another in Abey.

Siham Kantar says she doesn't believe her son killed any Israelis because during the shootout with police, she said he received gunshot wounds and could not have "resisted and killed as they said." She also says she had no knowledge that her son was planning any such attack.

"He left the house in 1979 three days before the attack, after he kissed his little brothers and sisters while they were asleep. Nobody at that time thought that Samir was planning for an attack on the Israelis," said Siham, whose home was decorated with several pictures including one of her son with Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti, who also is jailed for life by Israel for involvement in deadly attacks on Israelis. Another picture hanging on the main living room wall features Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

The indirect talks between Israel and Hezbollah have been going for nearly two years through German U.N. mediators. Israel's government approved the release on June 29, but it took several weeks to work out final arrangements. Hezbollah has also confirmed the planned swap.

As part of the deal, Israel also is expected to turn over the bodies of some 200 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters. Military crews dug up the bodies from an Israeli cemetery last week in preparation for the exchange. In return, Israel is to receive the two soldiers captured by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid on July 12, 2006, that set off a fierce 34-day war.

Siham Kantar said she is "counting the hours and the seconds" until her son returns. Two members of his family have died since his imprisonment — his sister in 1982 after suffering a brain hemorrhage and his father in 1986 from a heart attack.

"The first thing I want to do is congratulate him on his safe return, and then I want to embrace him and kiss him," she said.

"I have been waiting for this moment for a long time," she added.