For Israel, prisoner swap evokes raw memories

NAHARIYA, Israel — Moshe Sasson felt the gun pressed against his head, a Lebanese assailant poised to shoot, when the lights in the hall of his apartment building suddenly went out, allowing him to escape and take cover under a car.

The gunman, Samir Kantar, went on to kill three other people in one of the most notorious attacks in Israeli history. Three decades later, he is about to be freed in exchange for two Israeli soldiers whose capture set off a monthlong Mideast war.

The Israelis are presumed dead. But Kantar, whose deadly 1979 rampage traumatizes Sasson to this day, is expected to receive a hero’s welcome when he returns to Lebanon.

“I remember his face, the dark black eyes and murderous gaze,” Sasson recalled Tuesday, hands trembling and eyes tearing. “He was like the angel of death.”

The swap is set to take place Wednesday morning after the Israeli Cabinet’s overwhelming approval of the deal a day earlier. In addition to handing over Kantar, Israel also has agreed to release four other Lebanese prisoners and hand over the bodies of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters killed in clashes over the years.

Shortly before dawn Wednesday, Kantar and the four other inmates were taken from prison and driven toward the Lebanese border for the trade.

The deal seals a painful chapter from Israel’s inconclusive war against Hezbollah two years ago. It also marks a major boost for Hezbollah at a time when the militant group is moving decisively to regain its footing following the blows it took in the 2006 war.

Hezbollah’s commander in south Lebanon, Sheik Nabil Kaouk, called the swap an “official admission of defeat” for Israel. Red, white and green Lebanese flags, yellow Hezbollah flags and welcome banners are hanging in south Lebanese villages through which the coffins carrying the returned bodies will be driven in a convoy from the border toward Beirut.

Hezbollah supporters have set up a makeshift stage in the coastal town of Naqoura, where a brief ceremony will be held. An official ceremony will follow at Beirut Airport; it will be attended by Lebanon’s president, prime minister and parliament speaker. The Lebanese government has announced that Wednesday will be a national holiday “to celebrate the liberation of prisoners from the jails of the Israeli enemy and the return of the remains of martyrs.”

Later, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah will give a speech during what is expected to be a massive celebration in the group’s stronghold south of Beirut.

By contrast, the exchange will be a somber occasion in Israel. No ceremonies are planned.

Cabinet Minister Isaac Herzog, who voted with the majority to approve the deal, called the decision to swap Kantar “a tormenting one.”

“Clearly we opted for a resolution that fulfills our prime rule since the creation of the state of Israel, and this is to bring back our sons home, despite the toll,” he told The Associated Press.

The prisoner swap was brokered with the help of a German secret agent, according to the German government.

A confidential paper from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office, obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday, said the agent worked for 18 months and racked up 435,000 air miles in the process of facilitating the exchange.

The parents of Ehud Goldwasser, one of two Israeli soldiers to be swapped on Wednesday, said they just want their nightmare to end.

Hezbollah has given no evidence that Goldwasser and fellow reservist Eldad Regev are alive and has not allowed the Red Cross access to them. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet last month that Israel thinks the men did not survive.

Goldwasser’s father, Shlomo, said the family would not engage in “speculation,” but were preparing for the worst.

“Tomorrow it will be over,” he said. “It will be a relief to finally know.”

The sleepy coastal city of Nahariya is the focus of the drama behind the swap. It’s where Kantar carried out his attack, where the survivors still live, where the Goldwasser family resides and where more than 100 rockets exploded during the 2006 war that followed their son’s capture. It is also just 5 miles south of the border crossing where Wednesday’s swap will take place.

Sasson, now 62, remembers every detail of Kantar’s attack on April 22, 1979. He said he awoke to the sounds of gunshots, grabbed his two young daughters, placing one under each arm, and sprinted toward his apartment building’s bomb shelter. There he found himself face to face with Kantar.

He said the assailant reached for the girls, shoved Sasson and slammed a handgun into the back of Sasson’s skull. Suddenly, the hall lights went out. In the dark, Sasson said he scrambled for cover, crawling through the underground bomb shelter as the sounds of gunfire and grenade explosions filled the building.

He hid under a parked car, where he watched Kantar drag his next door neighbor, Danny Haran, and Haran’s 4-year-old daughter, Einat, toward the beach.

An Israeli court convicted Kantar, who was 16 years old at the time of the attack and is now 45, of shooting Haran in front of the little girl, then smashing her skull against a rock with his rifle butt, killing her, too.

Back at the Haran apartment, Haran’s wife, Smadar, fled into a crawl space in her apartment with her 2-year-old daughter and Sasson’s wife.

What happened at the apartment has reverberated in the Israeli consciousness for decades. Smadar accidentally smothered the toddler in a desperate attempt to silence her cries. Sasson said his wife witnessed it all and felt the little girl’s fluttering legs against her stomach.

Kantar has consistently denied killing the 4-year-old. Sasson reacted in disgust to Kantar’s denial.

“He is lying! He tried to grab my child, too,” he told the AP in one of only a handful of interviews he’s given since the attack. “I will take this with me to the grave.”

The family of an Israeli policeman killed in Kantar’s attack petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to block the prisoner swap, but the court rejected the petition. Haran’s widow said she was devastated by the decision, though she recently said she understood it.

Haran’s mother was not as forgiving. “He is not sorry … How a government can give him freedom?” asked 82-year-old Nina Keren, tears rolling down her cheeks.

Critics have said that by trading bodies for prisoners, Israel is giving militants little incentive to keep captured soldiers alive. And although polls suggest a large majority of Israelis support the exchange, many Israelis are anguished at the prospect that Kantar would go free.

Israeli President Shimon Peres gave the final go-ahead Tuesday by signing a document pardoning Kantar.

“This is a sad day for me and for the country,” he told reporters. “On one hand, we have the most terrible murderer. On the other hand, we have our commitment to our boys who were sent to fight for their country. It is our moral duty and our heartfelt wish to see them come back.”