Israel arrests 50 PFLP members in crackdown following deadly August bombing

Shin Bet says members of the terror group were planning additional attacks when they were arrested; guns and bomb-making equipment seized

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Security forces have arrested some 50 members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terror group in raids throughout the West Bank in recent months as part of a broad crackdown following a deadly terror attack earlier this year, the Shin Bet security service said Wednesday.

The military said the raids had helped foil a number of planned assaults by the group, which had faded into relative obscurity in recent years.

“The intelligence analysis and intensive investigation led to the thwarting of several imminent terror attacks. If we hadn’t reached the terror cells in the field quickly, the attacks that were planned by the terror network would have been carried out and would have cost many human lives,” a senior Shin Bet officer said, on condition of anonymity.

The raids came after the group was blamed for a fatal August 23 bombing in the West Bank. Rina Shnerb, 17, was killed by the bomb at a natural spring near the Dolev settlement that she was visiting with her father, Rabbi Eitan Shnerb, and her brother, Dvir, both of whom were seriously wounded.

According to the Shin Bet, the explosive was planted at the site and triggered remotely by a PFLP cell led by Samer Mina Salim Arbid, 44, who was arrested shortly after the attack.

During its investigation, the Shin Bet, working with the Israel Defense Forces and Israel Police, uncovered a large network of PFLP operatives, who also allegedly conducted shooting attacks against Israeli targets “and were planning to carry out other significant terror attacks in the near future,” the security service said.

Mourners carry the body of 17-year-old Israeli Rina Shnerb, who was killed by a bomb in a terror attack while visiting a spring near Dolev in the West Bank, during her funeral in the city of Lod on August 23, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP); inset: Rina Shnerb (Courtesy)

The Shin Bet said over the course of several months it arrested approximately 50 PFLP members it believes were part of this terror cell and seized many guns and other weapons.

Indictments have already been filed against the majority of the members of the networks, with more expected to be charged shortly, the Shin Bet said.

Guns and bomb-making equipment that were found by Israeli security forces during a crackdown on the PFLP terror group in the West Bank in the fall and winter of 2019. (Shin Bet)

According to the security service, in its joint raids with the IDF and Israel Police, troops seized M-16 assault rifles, AK-47 assault rifles, Galil assault rifles, carbine rifles, improvised miniature Uzis, pistols, silencers, scopes, ammunition and radios.

In addition, security forces found bomb-making equipment, including large quantities of fertilizer, metal ball bearings and fuses, the Shin Bet said.

Many of the weapons were found in the homes of PFLP operatives’ family members, including those of Arbid.

“The large quantity of weapons that were seized and the intelligence that was collected in the Shin Bet’s interrogations of the network’s members show the danger of the network and the high level of preparedness that they had to carry out additional severe terror attacks in the short term, which were stopped thanks to our preventative efforts,” the senior Shin Bet official said.

According to the security service, this large PFLP network of terrorist operatives was led by Walid Muhammad Hanatsheh, 50, who was arrested in October.

Guns that were found by Israeli security forces during a crackdown on the PFLP terror group in the West Bank in the fall and winter of 2019. (Shin Bet)

“Walid served as a supervisor for Samer [Arbid] and as the head of the military wing of the Popular Front,” the security service said.

In addition to Hanatsheh, the Shin Bet said several other senior PFLP members were arrested in its raids, including Khalida Jarrar, 56, the head of the terror group’s overall operations in the West Bank; Abdel Raziq Faraj, 56, who oversaw Hanatsheh’s efforts and allegedly approved Arbid’s Dolev bombing; and Itaraf Hajaj, 43, who is responsible for PFLP’s activities in Ramallah and helped recruit operatives for the organization.

Jarrar, who has long advocated for Palestinian prisoners, is a former lawmaker on behalf of the PFLP in the Palestinian Legislative Council, the Palestinian Authority parliament. She was not accused of having been specifically involved in the Dolev bombing, but of being a member of the group.

Israel, the United States and the European Union consider the PFLP, one of several member parties of the Palestine Liberation Organization, to be a terrorist organization and it is therefore a crime to be a member of it.

All three of them have served time in Israeli prisons on multiple occasions over their terrorist activities.

Samer Arbid, the suspected ringleader of a terror cell believed to be behind a deadly bombing attack that killed Israeli teenager Rina Shnerb in August 2019, in an undated photograph. (Twitter)

According to the Shin Bet, Hanatsheh gave the go-ahead to Arbid to form a cell and carry out the attack.

Arbid, a long-time PFLP member, recruited the members of the cell and personally set off the bomb that killed Rina Shnerb and injured her father and brother at the Ein Bubin natural spring outside the Dolev settlement in the central West Bank as the family, from the central Israel town of Lod, was visiting the site.

The other three suspects believed to be directly responsible for the explosive attack — Qassem a-Karim Rajah Shibli, 25; Yasan Hasin Hasni Majamas, 24; and Qassem Barghouti, whose age wasn’t given — were also arrested as part of the raids, the Shin Bet said.

Clockwise from top-left, PFLP members Nizam Mahmoud, Qassem Shibli, Yasan Majamas, Samer Arbid, Walid Hanatsheh, Abdel Raziq Faraj, Khalida Jarrar and Itaraf Hajaj, who are all arrested by the Shin Bet security service on suspicion of having directly carried out or approved a deadly bombing attack on an Israeli family outside the Dolev settlement in August 2019 (Shin Bet)

In addition, a fifth man, Nizam Sami Yousef Ulad Mahmoud, 21, was arrested for allegedly taking part in the cell’s other terrorist activities.

According to the Shin Bet, besides the Ein Bubin bombing, Arbid’s cell also carried out two shooting attacks that resulted in no casualties: an attack on a bus in December 2017 near the Ofra settlement and another on a car near the Ariel settlement in March 2019.

Rabbi Eitan Shnerb speaks to the media at the Hadassah Medical Center Ein Kerem, a day after being wounded in a terrorist bombing near Dolev that killed his daughter Rina and wounded his son Dvir, August 24, 2019. (Flash90)

According to the security service, Arbid’s subordinates collected intelligence about the natural spring in the weeks before the attack, finding the best method for planting the bomb.

The night before, Arbid, Shibli and Majamas traveled to the site, armed with a handgun. Arbid then left his accomplices in a rocky area near the spring in order to leave their car closer to Ramallah, the Shin Bet said.

“About an hour later, Walid Hanatsheh… returned Samer Arbid to the site, where the cell members were waiting, and then he left,” according to the security service.

Israeli ambulances leave the site where a bomb exploded near the Israeli settlement of Dolev in the West Bank on August 23, 2019, killing a teenage Israeli girl seriously injuring two other people (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

The trio hiked down from the rocky area to the natural spring and planted the bomb there before walking up to a nearby observation spot, the Shin Bet said.

“After several hours of waiting, during which Qassem Barghouti was responsible for the lookout, the cell members saw the Shnerb family approaching the location, Barghouti gave the instruction to Samer Arbid, who pulled the trigger and set off the powerful explosive device toward the family members,” the security service said.

Following the blast, the cell members fled the scene on foot toward Ramallah, where they split up, according to the Shin Bet.

Rina Shnerb was pronounced dead at the scene. Her father and brother were taken by military helicopter to a Jerusalem hospital with serious injuries. They have since been released from the hospital.

Arbid was critically injured during his questioning by Shin Bet officers, who had been given special permission to use so-called “advanced” interrogation techniques as he was believed to have information about an imminent attack.

Unconfirmed reports in Hebrew-language media said that Arbid, who did not deny the allegations against him, suffered a heart-related problem during the interrogation. Arbid’s lawyers have accused the security service of torturing their client, who has since recovered.

Channel 13 reported that Israeli officials suspect that Arbid was not injured during interrogation but in the course of his arrest in the Ramallah suburb of Al Bireh, which was “very violent.”

Palestinian prisoner advocacy group Addameer has said that Arbid was “harshly beaten” by the Israeli security forces who arrested him and that Shin Bet investigators “continued using torture and ill-treatment” afterwards.

The Justice Ministry has launched an investigation into Arbid’s injuries, specifically probing the degree of force along with the tactics used by the Shin Bet interrogators.

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