New Light on Hamas Role in Killings of Teenagers That Fueled Gaza Wa

New Light on Hamas Role in Killings of Teenagers That Fueled Gaza War

By Isabel Kershner, The New York Times

4 September 2014

The abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank in June, which helped fuel the biggest escalation in Palestinian-Israeli tensions in years, was set in motion by Hamas operatives from a local Palestinian clan and was financed with about $60,000, mostly obtained through a relative who worked for a Hamas association in Gaza, according to official Israeli documents released on Thursday.

But the documents, related to an investigation and indictment of the man suspected of leading the kidnappers, provide no evidence that the top leaders of Hamas directed or had prior knowledge of the plot to abduct the three Israeli youths.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and his subordinates asserted as fact that the kidnapping and killing of the three youths was orchestrated by Hamas, which Israel regards as a terrorist group committed to its destruction. He responded by ordering a severe crackdown on Hamas suspects and institutions in the West Bank.

Though the documents released on Thursday do not necessarily undercut the Israeli government’s assertions, they present a more nuanced picture.

The killing of the three teenagers led to the kidnapping and killing of a Palestinian teenager — said to be revenge by Israeli extremists — violent Palestinian protests, rocket attacks on Israel by Gaza-based militants, and an escalation into a 50-day war, halted last week, that left more than 2,100 Gazans and more than 70 Israelis dead.

The new details on the abduction and killing of the three Israelis emerged from the charge sheet of Hussam Qawasmeh, described as the logistical commander of the kidnapping squad, who was indicted in a military court on Thursday, as well as a statement issued by the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency.

They depict the plot as more of a family affair, a local initiative organized and carried out by members of a clan in Hebron, the West Bank city that has often been a flash point of Israeli-Palestinian tensions, and a few additional associates.

“At this stage it appears that this was a local structure with funding from Hamas sources in Gaza,” an Israeli security official with knowledge of the investigation said Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity in line with his agency’s protocol.

The two men suspected of actually carrying out the kidnappings and killings — a relative of Mr. Qawasmeh and an accomplice — are still at large.

Most of the roughly $60,000 raised for the operation was sent in five installments by Mr. Qawasmeh’s brother, Mahmoud, a Hamas associate and former prisoner of Israel who is confined to Gaza and who works for an association, Al-Nour, that the documents say belongs to Hamas. It was not clear from the documents whether the money had come from the association.

No other details were provided about the money’s origins, but the Israeli security official said the request for funds was made in vague terms, for a “military operation,” and not specifically for a kidnapping.

The documents say the money was used mainly to buy two cars — a stolen Hyundai with Israeli number plates for the actual kidnappings and another to be used as a getaway vehicle — and two M-16 rifles and two pistols.

Hamas leaders have long promoted a strategy of capturing Israeli soldiers for use as bargaining leverage for the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. According to the documents, this was the motive of the kidnappers.

The precise nature of the Hamas connection is significant because the kidnapping and killing of the three teenagers — Eyal Yifrach, 19, and Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel, both 16 — convulsed Israel and the occupied territories in ways that hardened the positions of both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Hamas affiliations of the suspects were used by Israel to justify a major crackdown against Hamas and its infrastructure in the West Bank, leading to scores of arrests. As tensions escalated, Hamas militants in Gaza fired rockets into Israel, which eventually turned into a full-blown confrontation.

Mr. Netanyahu also seized on the kidnappings to strengthen his argument for rejecting a new Palestinian government that had resulted from a reconciliation pact reached in April between President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas leadership.

Hours after the funerals of the abducted Israeli teenagers, a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, 16, was abducted, beaten and burned to death. Three Israelis have been indicted in that case, which set off days of rioting in East Jerusalem.

Hamas leaders praised the kidnapping and killing of the Israeli teenagers and have since acknowledged that the perpetrators were Hamas operatives. They have not claimed any direct responsibility.

In an interview with Yahoo News last month, Khaled Meshal, the exiled political leader of Hamas, said, “We were not aware of this action taken by this group of Hamas members in advance.”

“We learned about these confessions from the Israeli investigation,” Mr. Meshal added. He went on to describe the kidnapping as a legitimate act of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.

Another senior Hamas official who lives in Turkey, Saleh al-Arouri, one of the founders of Hamas’s military wing, was taped at an Islamic scholars’ conference in Istanbul describing the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers as “a heroic operation by the Qassam Brigades,” referring to Hamas’s military wing.

Another senior Israeli government official argued that it was fair to blame Hamas, as an organization, for the kidnappings.

“These people in Hebron are known Hamas activists, and it is clear that Hamas leaders have called on their people to carry out kidnappings — that was the message coming from the leadership,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be able to discuss intelligence and security issues. “And it is still possible that we will find evidence of a direct connection,” he added.

The details in the charge sheet portrayed the operation, albeit deadly, as relatively unsophisticated and marked by a degree of improvisation in the execution and the aftermath.

The kidnappers had originally planned to carry out their attack on June 10. They told Mr. Qawasmeh they had set out but did not find a suitable victim. On June 12 they tried again and picked up the three youths, all students at West Bank yeshivas, from a hitchhiking stop.

But the kidnappers had not planned for three.

Soon after the teenagers got into the car, one of the abductors “pulled out a gun, pointed it at them and told them they had been kidnapped and they should keep quiet,” the charge sheet said. It added that the three “refused to give in to their fate or to listen to the kidnappers’ instructions,” so the kidnappers decided to kill them.

One of the teenagers managed to call the police from his cellphone, but the police initially thought it was a prank call, a mistake that delayed any search for hours.

The call was not mentioned in the charge sheet. It said only that the kidnappers ordered the three to lower their heads, then shot them with accurate fire to their upper bodies. They were buried in a shallow grave on a plot of land owned by Mr. Qawasmeh. The bodies were found 18 days later.

Featured Image: From left, Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach, the Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped in the West Bank in June and killed. Copyright 2014, Shaarh/Frenkel, via Yifrah Families European Pressphoto Agency

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