Israeli official names Hamas leader abroad as suspect behind kidnappings

Three Israelis still believed to be held in Hebron area; deported terrorist Saleh al-Arouri, who reports to Khaled Mashaal, said to have been directing West Bank terror cells for years

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Hamas operative Saleh al-Arouri, the Turkey-based head of Hamas operations in the West Bank (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
Hamas operative Saleh al-Arouri, the Turkey-based head of Hamas operations in the West Bank (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

A Hamas leader currently living in Turkey is believed to be behind the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank last week, an Israeli security official said Thursday.

The official spoke as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that the attempts to bring home the three Israelis were making progress — “We today know more than we knew a few days ago,” he said.

According to the unnamed official, Saleh al-Arouri — a former West Bank resident deported from the region after serving a prison sentence in Israel for several years, who is now a leading figure in Hamas overseas operations — is thought to have been a key figure for years in attempts to initiate terror attacks in the West Bank, funding and arranging the training of terror cells.

The official claimed al-Arouri, who used to live in a village north of Ramallah, has urged West Bank operatives incessantly to set up terror cells and perpetrate kidnappings. Al-Arouri has financially sponsored these cells, which were trained and directed to abduct Israelis. Often, that money was transferred through charities to obfuscate their real destination — the would-be kidnappers — the official said.

In this Thursday, July 12, 2012 file photo, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal arrives at the Islamist Ennahda party congress in Tunis (photo credit: AP/Amine Landoulsi)
Khaled Mashaal (photo credit: AP/Amine Landoulsi)

The official conceded that Israel had no “smoking gun” proving al-Arouri’s involvement in the kidnapping last Thursday night of Gil-ad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Frankel, “but I have no doubt that al-Arouri was connected to the act.” There is an increasing belief in the Israeli security services that the kidnapping was directed by Hamas’s overseas hierarchy, he noted, adding that al-Arouri is answerable to Hamas’s political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal.

Israeli forces have made some 280 arrests in the West Bank in recent days, and have also targeted Hamas funding networks, confiscating computers in banks and other evidence. Elite IDF units are on call should there be a need for any particularly sensitive operations, Channel 2 news reported. It added that the three Israelis are still believed to be held in the Hebron area, and said further arrests were expected.

“We are making progress,” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said. “We’ll get to the terrorists in the end, and we’ll get to our kidnapped boys.”

The three missing teens, from left to right: Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar and Naftali Frankel (Photo credit: Courtesy)
The three missing teens, from left to right: Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar and Naftali Frankel (photo credit: Courtesy)

In the past two years, dozens of al-Arouri’s emissaries have visited the West Bank after obtaining entry through Jordan, the Israeli office-holder said. Several of them were arrested, but a number escaped the notice of Israeli security officials and were able to leave the country with their missions accomplished.

Those who were arrested brought money and written messages on behalf of al-Arouri, which explicitly directed the establishment of terror cells for kidnappings.

“It must be understood that [Hamas] is not a standard army, and there are no direct orders, but only general directives, and even now the directive to kidnap stands,” he said.

Overall, the source explained, there are four primary Hamas sources that can organize and commit attacks — the Hamas branch abroad, in which al-Arouri is a key figure; the Gaza leadership; operatives in the field, who, according to the official, were more constrained by Israeli security; and terrorists held in Israeli prisons, whose freedom of movement is similarly restricted.

The official said it was less likely that Hamas in Gaza or prisoners released to the coastal enclave as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange were behind the attack.

“Although they have also tried to perpetrate attacks, their chances of success were lower.”

Overall for Hamas, the official said, the bargaining chip of having Israelis held hostage is “immensely valuable, notwithstanding the negative consequences for the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation process.” And even though Hamas is less interested in an escalation of hostilities [with Israel], that does not mean kidnappings that could be successful should be stopped. For Hamas, there is one explicit instruction, and that is to continue to kidnap Israelis.”

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