QABATIYA, West Bank — Ahmad Iwad Ali Kamil, 51, smiles when I ask him about his return to Qabatiya after 21 years in an Israeli prison.
“Walla, I wouldn’t recognize this place if I came here at night,” he says about his childhood town, located a few kilometers south of Jenin. “But this is part of progress, of advancement. We changed, you changed, and I hope this will continue when there is peace here,” he says.
About a week has passed since his release from prison, but the flow of visitors to his house doesn’t let up. Another senior Fatah official arrives, and a member of the security forces — former brothers-in-arms, who were in the same Black Panthers cell until they were arrested by the Israel Defense Forces in 1993.
Kamil became something of a “legend” among many Palestinians in the early 1990s. It was before the age of the major Hamas operatives and well before the armed conflict of the Second Intifada. He was considered the head of the Fatah Black Panthers, one of the most dangerous groups operating in the West Bank.
Israeli security forces tried to arrest or kill him dozens of times over the years, but he managed to evade them time and again. Before he was 30, he was already responsible for the murders of five Israelis and of 16 Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel.
Kamil was thus a resonant figure not only among the Palestinians, and especially residents of Jenin and Qabatiya, but also among IDF special forces and the Shin Bet. In one of the mist’aravim undercover units operating in the West Bank, a song was written about him and how difficult it was to find him. Among Palestinians in the northern West Bank, a rumor spread, and reached the Israeli side, that Kamil was a ghost — someone who did not really exist, a phantom who was obsessing the Israeli security establishment.
At the end of September 1993, about two weeks after the signing of the Oslo Accords, however, the saga reached its climax: In a complex operation of Duvdevan [elite special] forces and Israeli Navy Seals, Kamil was arrested along with five other members of his cell.
Back home now, not far from the spot where he was captured, Kamil refuses to answer questions about those days, about the killing of innocent Israelis or Palestinians. He repeats that he wants to leave the past behind.
“Enough talking about back then. We must leave those times behind and look to the future,” he says. “We need peace and we want peace and the people in Israel must understand that. Peace demands a price and both sides have paid it. The time has come to live together.”
The hands of Israel’s former Most Wanted Man shake slightly, as does his voice, perhaps the result of 21 years in prison. But in 2007, when I met the incarcerated Kamil in Ashkelon, his health seemed even worse.
He recounts with excitement the story of the night he was released, about returning to his children and family. “I met my granddaughter for the first time, and I lost several family members in the years that passed. My mother died four years ago at the age of 70. When I went to prison, I had three children, and thanks to Allah, my father, my mother, my brothers all helped to care for them. They studied in universities… One is a dentist, another works for the security services. And yes, they know about my history and they are proud of it. I am speaking as someone who has a long history of struggle. We need to forget the past and negotiate for peace. It’s critical.”
He doesn’t like talking about the night of his arrest, either. “I hid in a bunker, a sort of well, not far from here on the way to Tubas. There were a lot of special forces and regular army, and what I mainly remember is that it was a painful incident. There was no exchange of fire, and, along with me, Osama Nizal and Wael Abu Rub were also arrested. They were released as part of the Wye River Memorandum.
“Why did I stay in prison? I don’t know. The Israelis figured that if I stayed, it would be better for them. That was a mistake. If I believe in the peace process, and I did what I did before the agreements, then it just does damage to hold me in prison for longer.”
When the then-commander of the Judea and Samaria Division (and today Israeli defense minister), Brigadier General Moshe Ya’alon, appointed Col. Yoav Galant as commander of the Menashe Brigade, there were 120 wanted Palestinians in the Jenin District. Kamil headed the list, and his comrades in the Black Panthers cell were right below him. He and his men were responsible for numerous bloody attacks against Israelis, including within the Green Line, and they also succeeded in instilling fear in the local population by particularly cruel assassinations of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel.
In those days, there were almost no prominent Hamas terror fugitives. The Islamist organization’s military wing was still in its infancy and only starting to establish itself in the southern West Bank. Samaria, and especially the Jenin area, was Fatah’s domain, and it may have been more accurate to call it Kamil’s domain. His picture was known to every soldier who served in the Central Command. For Galant, a Navy Seal who was brought to that sector because of his skill in “special operations,” Kamil became a prime target.
But intelligence about the man was limited. Even the Shin Bet was not able to come up with information about possible hiding spots. Galant decided to employ as many special forces as he could, in an attempt to arrest as many Fatah members as possible in the hope that someone would have relevant information.
The special operations officer of the Judea and Samaria Division, Avi Sivan, and the division’s intelligence officer gave their best forces to Galant: Duvdevan, the Navy Seals of Shayetet 13, the Paratrooper reconnaissance company, the Nahal reconnaissance economy, field intelligence units, and more. They all came to the area to catch the Black Panther from Qabatiya.
In late summer 1993, “G.,” the Shin Bet commander in the area, presented Galant with preliminary information about a group of suspects from Kamil’s cell, who were regularly traveling in a partially wooded area between Qabatiya and Jenin, sometimes during the day and sometimes at night. Their route came to be known as the “path of the wanted.” After a plethora of operations, some covert and some not, a night ambush by the IDF’s Battalion 299 succeeded in catching two suspects who were members of the Black Panthers cell.
A strenuous — but not violent — interrogation produced the information that everyone had been waiting for: According to the two men, Kamil and five others from his cell were hiding in three separate Qabatiya locations and in a home on the way to Tubas. The isolated house outside Qabatiya belonged to the Rashad family, known to be very rich and close to the Palestinian leadership in Tunis.
Galant urgently sent the Duvdevan unit, commanded by a young lieutenant-colonel named Ram Rutberg — the current Israeli Navy commander — as well as a detachment from Shayetet 13. Duvdevan would close in on the three homes in Qabatiya and the Seals would raid the Rashad family home.
The operation would use different methods to those generally employed by undercover units. The forces would conduct the raid quietly, on foot during the night, and in uniform. The command group, under Galant, set up its location at the Tank Junction, between Qabatiya and Jenin.
In early morning on September 29, soldiers from the two elite units began moving in on their targets. Rutberg allowed the soldiers to come close to the three houses, while the Shayetet force, under the command of “D.,” arrived stealthily at the Rashad home. When “D.” and Rutberg reported their positions, Galant gave the go-ahead to close in on the structures. The three Qabatiya houses were surrounded quietly, as was the house near Tubas.
The soldiers called for the wanted men to turn themselves in, but when they did not, the forces entered and began searching room by room. In Qabatiya, one of the Duvdevan soldiers noticed a passage that led to a pit. Another soldier entered the pit, and found one of the suspects with a weapon hanging from his neck, but with his arms raised in the air. Three others were arrested in the surrounding homes, but Kamil was not among them.
In the meantime, the Shayetet force, frustratingly, failed to find anyone in the Rashad house. The Seals repeatedly searched the rooms, but came up empty-handed. After several hours, one of the soldiers noticed that the porcelain tiling next to the kitchen sink was asymmetrical. A few hammer blows, and a door was discovered under the sink. In peering into the hidden chamber, they saw a pistol right under the door. The force reported back to Galant, who asked the soldiers to take Kamil alive if they found him.
This meant no fragmentation grenades. Instead, the Seals tossed a yellow smoke grenade into the hiding spot. After a few seconds, Kamil and another member of his cell came out with hands raised and yellow paint on their faces.
A few weeks later, Kamil’s trial began. During the proceedings, he repeated the same position, time and again, almost as a mantra: He was operating under the orders of Yasser Arafat and the Fatah leadership. He said that he was a Fatah officer and just followed orders. A few months later, Israel decided to release hundreds of prisoners, including those who were imprisoned in an old building in the Menashe Brigade’s headquarters near Jenin. Galant, who supervised those releases as brigade commander, wondered — in a conversation with his deputy — whether the day would come when Kamil would also be freed.
‘It’s not a matter of regret’
The capture of the Black Panthers cell in September 1993 put an end, in many ways, to the era of Fatah paramilitary cells in the 1990s. Afterward, the list of wanted men got shorter. By the time Col. Danny Shaham took over command of the Jenin Brigade from Galant in 1995, there was no list at all.
Not for long, of course. In the subsequent years, a new breed of terrorists appeared on the list — members of Hamas. But by the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000, Fatah operatives appeared once again on the list.
Kamil in 2014 looks entirely different than the picture hanging on his wall in Qabatiya. He has lost a lot of weight, and sounds conciliatory toward Israel. “We are not terrorists. We fought against the occupation and that is an important point. But I can assure you we won’t return to terror. We are with our leadership, with Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), who has proven how much of a leader and commander he is. He chose the path of negotiations, and we are with him.
“When I see your demonstrations against the release of prisoners, I want to tell them they are mistaken. If they stay in prison, it will only strengthen the terror, not the opposite. We don’t want to go anywhere but toward peace, and we want your people and leaders to understand there is no other way.”
Do you regret your activities?
“It’s not a question of regret. In the past, we thought that we would deal with the occupation. Now we are in a period of talks. We need brave leaders from both sides in order to make decisions that will have a price, but will lead to peace.”
One thing hasn’t changed. Even now, Kamil emphasizes the mantra he repeated during his trial. “I was a soldier. I followed orders. I acted according to the instructions of the political leadership and that is the authority for me,” he says. “And today, too, I continue to carry out its instructions.”