Druze women mourn their relatives Farhan Al-Shaalan and Samir Kantar, who were killed by an Israeli airstrike near the Syrian capital, in the Druze village of Ein Kinya in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, near the border with Syria, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015. Kantar, a Lebanese who was convicted of carrying out one of the most notorious attacks in Israeli history and spent nearly three decades in an Israeli prison, has been killed by an Israeli airstrike near the Syrian capital, the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah group said Sunday. Al-Mayadeen said that Al-Shaalan, a senior commander with the anti-Israeli “resistance” movement in the Golan Heights, was also killed in the air raid together with an aide to Kantar. Image Credit: AP

Beirut: Samir Kantar, recipient of the Syrian Order of Merit, was killed in Damascus this weekend.

The only Druze commander in Hezbollah, he was a national hero to many in Syria and Lebanon, and a hated figure by many others.

Rumours are rife on what he was doing in the Syrian capital and why he was killed at this juncture of the Syrian civil war.

The senior Hezbollah commander was a regular customer at the Siouf Square Café in Jaramaneh, a densely populated middle-class neighbourhood 10km southeast of Damascus.

Although ethnically and religiously mixed, Jaramanah is mostly home to white and blue color Syrian Christians and Druze. For an entire decade it was swarming with Iraqi refugees and was often nicknamed “Little Baghdad.”

When walking into the Siouf Square Café, wearing his hallmark black leather jacket, Kantar addressed local staff by their first names, smiling to teenage customers who took selfies with “Dean of Arab Prisoners in Israeli Jails”, as he was known.

Knowing their guest preference by heart, waiters would automatically serve him strong Arabic coffee, sweetened to his liking, according to Maher, a waiter who spoke to Gulf News.

In this photo released Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian soldiers stand in front of a damaged building where Samir Kantar was believed to be killed along with several others Saturday night in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, Syria. Kantar a Lebanese who was convicted of executing one of the most notorious attacks in Israeli history and spent nearly three decades in an Israeli prison, has been killed in an Israeli airstrike that targeted a residential building near the Syrian capital, the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah group said Sunday. (AP)

“When in town he would spend the evening here with his friend and right-hand-man Farhan Al Shaalan, a Druze resident of Jaramanah whose family fled the Golan Heights after the Israeli occupation in 1967.

A one-time real estate developer turned militia leader after outbreak of the Syria War, Al Shaalan joined the pro-government National Defense Committees, rising to become their commander in Jaramanah in late 2013.

Both men were killed by an Israeli airstrike in Jaramanah on Sunday.

Kantar had just arrived in Damascus early on Saturday, according one of his friends, and was staying at Shaalan’s home in the Homsi neighbourhood of Jaramanah. It was business as usual for the 53-year old Lebanese commander.

Second home

“Damascus was his second home” and a favourite weekend destination for Kantar’s small family since his release from Israel to Hezbollah back in 2008, according to a woman who used to work with him in the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF).

His wife Zainab Al Berjawi, who hails from a prominent Lebanese Shiite family, had many friends and relatives in Damascus. According to his former comrade in the PLF, Kantar personally liked Jaramanah because “it was close to the Golan,” inhabited by many of the Golan’s original residence, and was close to the burial spot of his first boss and mentor Abu Al Abbas, a senior commander in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) who was arrested by the Americans in 2003 and died in a US jail in Baghdadi one year later, only to be buried at the nearby Yarmouk Camp of Damascus.

In November 2008, Kantar became a regular guest on Syrian TV talks-shows and President Bashar Al Assad decorated him with the Order of Merit of the Syrian Republic, Excellence Class. A few weeks later he officially joined Hezbollah, parting ways with the now clinically dead PLF, of which he was a member when he carred out his military operation in Israel back in 1979.

Upon his release from Israeli jails and return to Beirut he was welcomed by a wide assortment of Lebanese figures, including then-President Michel Sulaiman, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who became his new boss and role model in life. “Kantar adored him to the point of obsession” adds the waiter, Maher.

Overnight he was promoted to become a ranking and high profile commander of Hezbollah. They thrived at his membership and loyalty, giving him plenty of media appearances, which was uncommon for senior military commanders other than Nasrallah. Kantar was an iconic celebrity in the “resistance camp,” however, worshipped for his teenage military career and the three decades spent in Israeli prisons. Additionally he was a Lebanese Druze and not a Muslim Shiite, giving diversity to Hezbollah and shaking off accusations that it was an “all-Shiite” organisation.

This December, however, Kantar was in Damascus neither for a television appearance nor the strong Arabic coffee at the Siouf Square Café.

According to a source in the pro-regime National Defence Committees, Farhan Al Shaalan warned him that sleeping cells were found in Jaramanah, packed with armed men from the nearby Barzeh neighbourhood, a hotbed for the anti-regime insurgency.

National Defense Committees were planning to attack then, and Shaalan had sought his friend’s advice on military strategy. Kantar had been more focused on trying to set up a Syrian resistance in the Golan, along with Jihad Mughnieh, the son of Hezbollah co-founder Emad Mughnieh. The elder Mugnieh was assassinated by the Israelis in Damascus in February 2008 and the son was killed along with a senior Iranian commander in January 2015. With that purpose in mind, Kantar had started spending more time in the Syrian capital as of December 2013. He was coordinating activity with Syrian troops, Hezbollah commanders, and the National Defense Committees, who regarded him as a “spiritual godfather and hero.”

Since news of his assassination broke last Sunday, Syrians have been divided on what to make of Samir Kantar. The government media and its affiliates are hailing him as a “glorious martyr” with the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese daily Al Akhbar labeling him “symbol of the Syrian resistance in the Golan.”

All border operations from Syria and skirmishes have since been attributed to him. Opponents of the Syrian regime are trashing him as a “killer” and “opponent of the Syrian revolt.” Some have gone as far as saying that he was eliminated by Hezbollah and the Syrians. That story doesn’t stand, however, because not only do they have no business in seeing him dead, both Nasrallah and Al Assad consider Kantar a loyal friend and crucial ally.

Throughout its history, after all, Israel has made a point in eliminating every Arab it alleges has Israeli blood on his or her hands—regardless of how long it took to take them down. Wadih Haddad of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine was poisoned in 1978; top Fatah commander Abu Jihad was assassinated in Tunis in 1988; head of PLO intelligence Abu Eyad was killed also in Tunis in 1991; Abu Hasan Salameh was blown to pieces in Beirut in 1979. In March 2004 Israel assassinated Hamas founder Ahmad Yassin and is believed to have killed Kantar’s boss Abu Al Abbas at an American jail in Baghdad that same month. In April of the same year it killed Ahmad Yassin’s successor Abdul Aziz Al Rantisi, and is accused by Palestinians to have poisoned Yasser Arafat, who died of unknown causes at a Parisian hospital that November. Samir Kantar was seemingly no exception to the Israeli hit-list.