Members of a Hamas terror ring in the West Bank, run from the organization’s headquarters in Turkey, sought to carry out an array of major attacks, including on Jerusalem’s main soccer stadium and its light rail line, the Shin Bet security service said Thursday.
The Shin Bet announcement confirmed a Times of Israel report last week that said Israel had arrested dozens of members of a Hamas terror network operating throughout the West Bank. The network, Palestinian officials said, was funded and directed by Hamas officials in Turkey who have set up a de facto command center in the Muslim country.
More than 30 Hamas operatives were arrested during the month of September, the Shin Bet said Thursday. The majority were recruited while studying in Jordan and trained in either Syria or the Gaza Strip, which they entered via tunnels from Sinai.
The Shin Bet said the ring was preparing to kidnap Israelis in Israel and abroad, enter Israeli villages, detonate car bombs, perpetrate roadside attacks, and execute a major terror attack in Teddy Stadium, where the Israeli soccer team Beitar Jerusalem plays its home games.
The Shin Bet asserted that the plan was evidence of an “indefatigable” desire on Hamas’s part to rehabilitate its terror infrastructure in the West Bank and to tug Israel into a sharp military response, which might indirectly lead to the toppling of PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s regime, which is “one of Hamas’ goals.”
The network was similar in its operational characteristics to one uncovered in August during the war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian officials said last week, adding that according to information received from Israel, this terror ring was even larger. Its operatives had already attempted several attacks against Israel, they added, but they had all failed.
As with the previous network, the man behind the terrorist grouping was Saleh al-Arouri, a Hamas leader who was deported from the West Bank to Turkey in 2010, the sources said.
Arouri, they said, built up and funded the network, and has effectively established a Hamas command post in Turkey which is leading terror efforts in the West Bank. Arouri is reportedly aided by dozens of operatives, some of whom were deported by Israel in the wake of the Gilad Shalit prisoner deal in 2011.
The officials accused Turkey as well as Qatar — the current home of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal — of enabling Hamas to operate freely within their territories to carry out attacks against Israel and undermine the Palestinian Authority.
In response to Thursday’s announcement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commended the Shin Bet and IDF for thwarting the attack, saying it was only one of multiple covert operations “against terrorists, against Hamas, which poses a threat to the existence of the nation state of the Jews and is in essence a threat to the existence of Jews in general.”
“We act day and night to protect the security of Israeli citizens and the people who are engaged in this work are deserving all praise and support,” he said in a statement.
In August, the Shin Bet said it had arrested over 90 operatives and thwarted a Hamas coup attempt in the West Bank aimed at toppling PA President Mahmoud Abbas and starting a third intifada uprising.
The Palestinian sources, however, maintained that the two networks were more concerned with carrying out attacks against Israeli military and settler targets in the West Bank. A rough Israeli response and the consequent weakening of the PA was a secondary objective, they said.
The officials added that several Hamas operatives connected to the recently uncovered network were also being held in PA detention facilities.
It appeared that the ring announced by the Shin Bet on Thursday began to unravel with a failed roadside attack on August 31, 2014. A series explosive devices that its members allegedly placed near the settlement of Reheilim were set to detonate one after another, in order to kill as many Israelis as possible, including the first responders on the scene. The Shin Bet said that intelligence work done in the wake of that failed attack enabled the organization to arrest the perpetrators and some 30 other suspects, revealing “a wealth of information about the infrastructure.”
The first recruits were chosen already in 2012 while studying in Jordan. The Shin Bet described the process of drafting, training, and organizing the recruits: At first the men were approached based on their religious ideology and individual skills, and, at times, personal acquaintance. Fresh recruits were passed on to headquarters, which decided where they should undergo training.
Abdullah Zitawi, a resident of Jordan, admitted under interrogation that he, for instance, had been inserted into Gaza three times between 2012 and 2013 and underwent weapons and explosives training there before being told, in 2014, to relocate to the West Bank and wait for further orders. Others were trained in Jordan, the Shin Bet said.
Once the operatives were inserted into the West Bank, the Shin Bet added, the Hamas officials in Turkey split them into cells and planned their deployment, with orders coming in to the West Bank via forward operatives in Jordan and Turkey.
The Shin Bet uncovered several safe houses, materials to be used for explosives, two M-16 rifles, and ammunition.
On November 20, the security organization revealed that it had arrested a Hamas cell in the Bethlehem area that sought to buy a rocket-propelled grenade and fire it at Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, a plan that, if successful, would have sent tremors through the region.
Avi Issacharoff contributed to this report.