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Saleh al-Arouri, Zacharia Najib said to lead cell

Shin Bet: Forces thwart major Hamas terror plans, nab more than 50 cell members

West Bank cell aimed to carry out some bombings imminently; suicide attacks planned; ringleader was offered $1m. for kidnapping

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

An undated photograph showing Israeli forces arresting a suspect believed to be involved in a major Hamas cell planning terror attacks on Israeli targets in the West Bank and Jerusalem. (Israel Defense Forces)
An undated photograph showing Israeli forces arresting a suspect believed to be involved in a major Hamas cell planning terror attacks on Israeli targets in the West Bank and Jerusalem. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israeli security forces arrested dozens of members of a Hamas cell that was in the advanced stages of planning major terror attacks in the West Bank and Israel, the Shin Bet security service said Monday.

The effort to uncover the cell has been ongoing for several months, first coming to light with a round of arrest raids in September, including one in which two Israeli soldiers were seriously injured and several Palestinian suspects were killed in gunfights.

According to the Shin Bet, over 50 Hamas operatives were arrested across the West Bank for suspected involvement in the cell and large quantities of weaponry was seized, including the materials needed to make at least four explosive belts for suicide attacks. An undisclosed amount of money that was allegedly used by the cell was also seized in the raids, according to the Shin Bet.

“You thwarted a large infrastructure, some of which you know was ready to go with explosive belts… grenades and other explosives,” IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi told the military commanders whose units took part in the raids.

The Shin Bet’s announcement about the discovery of the Hamas cell came a day after a member of the terror group in Jerusalem carried out a shooting attack in the Old City, killing one man, Eli Kay, and injuring four people.

Israeli officials generally believe that Hamas is looking to carry out attacks in the West Bank and in Israel while maintaining relative calm in the Gaza Strip, where the group serves as the de facto ruler.

Ammunition and other materiel that was confiscated during arrest raids against major Hamas cell planning terror attacks on Israeli targets in the West Bank and Jerusalem. (Shin Bet)

According to the Shin Bet, the Hamas cell was led from afar by Saleh al-Arouri, deputy head of the terror group’s politburo, and Zacharia Najib, a member of the organization who was released from Israeli prison in the 2011 Gilad Shalit exchange, where he allegedly continues to operate on behalf of Hamas. In the 2011 deal, over 1,000 Palestinian terrorists were released from Israeli incarceration in exchange for the release of Shalit, an IDF soldier who had been kidnapped by Hamas along the Gaza border in 2006. Both al-Arouri and Najib live in Turkey, which has long had a close relationship with Hamas, which is politically linked to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Najib, who took part in the kidnapping and killing of Israeli soldier Nachshon Wachsman in 1994, was allegedly involved in a failed Hamas plot to assassinate Israelis abroad in 2019.

The Shin Bet said al-Arouri invested hundreds of thousands of shekels in the cell’s activities and offered a prize of $1 million if the cell successfully carried out a kidnapping.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called on Ankara to close Hamas’s offices in Turkey and said countries around the world should designate all of Hamas, and not only its military wing, as a terror group.

“Hamas’s offices in Istanbul must be closed. We need to prevent these criminal terrorist activities against Israeli citizens in every place and under all circumstances,” he said in a statement.

According to the Kan news broadcaster, the Shin Bet had planned to reveal its efforts against the Hamas cell last week, but had pushed off the announcement in order to avoid embarrassing Turkey while Jerusalem and Ankara were negotiating the release of an Israeli couple that had been arrested and imprisoned in Turkey.

Ismail Haniyeh, right, the head of the Hamas political bureau, shakes hands with his deputy Saleh al-Arouri, upon his arrival in Gaza from Cairo, Egypt, in Gaza City, August 2, 2018. (Mohammad Austaz/Hamas Media Office via AP)

“This was a major preventative effort that thwarted dangerous terrorist infrastructure, which was planning serious attacks. The goal of the terrorist activities, which were undertaken by Hamas operatives abroad and in Gaza with operatives in the West Bank, was to destabilize the region, while exacting a heavy price from local residents,” a senior Shin Bet officer said, referring to the toll on Palestinians in the West Bank.

According to the Shin Bet, the cell was planning “to carry out terror attacks in a number of formats in the West Bank and Jerusalem, as well as the possibility of carrying out bombings in Israel.”

Al-Arouri and Najib, who both live abroad, recruited a number of top operatives from Palestinian cities and towns across the West Bank, notably Jenin, Ramallah, and Hebron, who in turn found additional members, according to the Shin Bet.

The Israeli security service identified one of those lieutenants as Hijazi Qawasmeh, a 37-year-old Hebron native, who has been arrested several times by Israel for allegedly planning terror attacks for Hamas, most recently in September.

An undated photograph showing Israeli forces raiding a home as part of an effort to break up a major Hamas cell planning terror attacks on Israeli targets in the West Bank and Jerusalem. (Israel Defense Forces)

“Hijazi recruited operatives in the West Bank, including Hamzah Zahran, a 40-year-old Hamas operative from the village of Bidu, near Ramallah,” the Shin Bet said.

According to the Shin Bet, Zahran, who has also been arrested multiple times for Hamas activities, went on to recruit several other operatives, including his family members. One of his brothers, Ahmad Zahran, was killed in a firefight with Israeli troops during one of the raids in Bidu in September. Two other Hamas members — Mahmoud Hameedan and Zakria Badwan — were killed in the same exchange.

“They worked using the money they received from abroad to obtain weapons and to create explosives, which were seized as part of the efforts to thwart this infrastructure,” the Shin Bet said.

According to the IDF, large amounts of explosives were found and later destroyed in a series of controlled blasts.

The Shin Bet identified two of the main bomb makers that were used by the cell: Muhammad Abu al-Hassan, from the village of Burqin near Jenin, and Ghani Hadour, from Bayt Sira near Ramallah.

The Israeli security services warned that Hamas operatives in the Gaza Strip and abroad were “constantly funneling funding toward various terrorist activities” in the West Bank.

In a tacit threat, the Shin Bet identified “one of the noteworthy people involved” as Musa Dudin, a senior Hamas member whom the security service alleged led an operation to send large sums of money to Hamas in the West Bank through couriers.

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