Beach scene with murderers

Paul Greenberg

7/21/2006 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

Whenever peace seems possible in the impossible Middle East, the violent bear it away.

Last year the Israelis withdrew from the Gaza Strip, dismantling their settlements there, forcing thousands of Jewish settlers to leave their life's work behind. They were being moved for the sake of peace, the settlers were told.

Six years ago, the Israelis withdrew their forces from southern Lebanon -- again to assure peace. Which the violent now have born away.

As inevitable as the violence are all those eager to explain it: The ex-diplomats on the tube, the former policymakers explaining how right they had been all along, the analysts who produce those long, discursive think pieces in The New York Times, the bloggers by and for all persuasions.

Words, words, words . . . but some images are worth more than any number of words:

Nahariya is a lovely seaside town in northern Israel. As the latest barrage of Katyushas fell on the resort, the news wires carried the picture of a battered apartment building in which one woman had died. She'd committed the crime of daring to sit on her balcony.

That one picture may say more about what is going on in the Middle East these bloody days than all the expert analyses in the unending 24/7 news.

Another picture of the same crumpled building showed a little flower box on the ground floor, its blooms still colorful despite all the damage to the floors above. It's a kind of emblem, that picture, the emblem of a people who simply want to be left in peace to live much as the rest of us do, returning home at the end of the day to have a drink, put our feet up, smell the flowers. For Hezbollah, that is asking too much.

Just what is it that Hezbollah wants? Well, for starters, in exchange for those two Israeli soldiers it abducted in its latest raid out of Lebanon across the Israeli border, it demands the release of its fellow terrorists now being held in Israeli prisons. Among those being held is one Samir Kuntar, who, as it happens, has a connection with lovely Nahariya-by-the-sea.

Just why is Samir Kuntar in an Israeli prison? To sum up the highlight from his dossier:

In 1979, Samir Kuntar led a raid that targeted civilians in Nahariya. His group entered the apartment of a young couple, Danny and Smadar Haran. They took Danny and his 4-year-old daughter, Einat, hostage and retreated to the beach. Trapped there, first, according to witnesses, they killed Danny. The murder of her father would be the last scene Einat would see. For then the raiders killed the little girl -- by bashing her head against a rock. Back at their apartment, Danny's wife, Smadar, had escaped execution by hiding in the crawlspace above a bedroom with their other daughter, two-year-old Yael. Afraid the child would reveal their hiding place, she had covered Yael's mouth with her hand. When she took her hand away, the mother realized she had smothered her child to death.

Nice man, Samir Kuntar.

Nice people, Hezbollah. Their record of atrocities is voluminous, including the bloody suicide bombing that destroyed the Marine barracks in Beirut on Oct. 23, 1983, costing 241 American lives.

But 241 is such a large, impersonal number. Outside of their still grieving families, who now knows the story of each of those lives cut short?

To some of us, what says most about the character of Hezbollah, about its leaders and tactics, about its current demands and future plans, is that scene on the beach at Nahariya, with father, daughter and murderers.

What is at stake in this latest unpleasantness in the Middle East is made clearest by Hezbollah's demand that the sainted Samir Kuntar be set free. There's doubtless a hero's welcome waiting for him in Lebanon.

More than all the words being written about this latest crisis in the Mideast, what haunts is the image of a little girl's head being bashed against the rocks along a beautiful Mediterranean beach.

In his Bastille Day address last Friday, French President Jacques Chirac denounced Israel's response to Hezbollah's attacks as "totally disproportionate."