The Shin Bet security service on Wednesday accused the Palestinian Al-Aqsa broadcaster and Gaza-based journalists of acting as agents of the Hamas terror group’s military wing in an effort to recruit young Palestinians with Israeli ID cards to carry out terror attacks inside Israel.
According to the security service, the Al-Aqsa television station was used to pass clandestine messages to Hamas operatives in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, using quotes from the Quran or subtle gestures by the presenters. The Shin Bet named two presenters who it said conveyed messages from Gaza via signals on air, and cited an instance in which a presenter did so by placing a cup of tea on a desk and reciting a line from a poem.
In one case, a 21-year-old from the Hebron suburb of Yatta was “asked by Hamas operatives in the [Gaza] Strip to carry out a suicide bombing with an explosive vest on a bus in the city of Lod,” the Shin Bet said.
In all, five Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were arrested since December in the operation, on suspicion of having been been recruited by Hamas to carry out terror attacks against Israeli targets.
The Shin Bet said the recruitment plot was a key factor in the decision made by the Israel Defense Forces to bomb Al-Aqsa TV’s headquarters in Gaza in November.
Israel has also long accused Hamas and other terror groups of using the special status granted to journalists as a cover for nefarious activities.
For several years, the Gaza-based Hamas operatives involved in the plot have been working to recruit Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to join their ranks and carry out attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers, the Shin Bet said.
“Hamas’s efforts to inspire these activities, despite its repeated failures, indicate a strategy that was chosen by the heads of Hamas to try to imperil the stability of the West Bank at any price,” a senior official in the agency said in a statement.
The security officer warned that those efforts represented a “significant and immediate threat to the stability of the region.”
In 2017, Hamas agents in the Strip began reaching out to Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem through social media, mostly Facebook, the Shin Bet said.
In the case of the planned Lod bus bombing, the suspect, 21-year-old Kutaiba al-Nawaja’a from the Hebron suburb of Yatta, began speaking with a man from Gaza, Muhammad Arbid, in 2017.
According to the Shin Bet, al-Nawaja’a “believed Arbid was a journalist” as he wore a yellow “PRESS” vest during protests along the Gaza border.
“In November 2018, Muhammad Arbid connected Kutaiba with a Hamas operative who identified himself as a member of Hamas’s military wing and invited Kutaiba to carry out a terror attack on behalf of Hamas,” the Shin Bet said.
In order to prove that the offer was indeed from Hamas, al-Nawaja’a was told to pick a passage from the Quran and watch the next night’s Al-Aqsa news broadcast.
“The next day, Kutaiba indeed believed he had spoken with a Hamas operative, after on the Al-Aqsa station they spoke about the same passage he had chosen,” the security service said.
According to the Shin Bet, al-Nawaja’a was arrested days before he was supposed to receive the explosive belt for the Lod bus bombing.
Hamas’s efforts to inspire these activities… indicate a strategy that was chosen by the heads of Hamas to try to imperil the stability of the West Bank at any price
In addition to Nawaja’a, Israeli security forces also arrested four other Palestinian men suspected of planning to carry out terror attacks for Hamas in the West Bank and Israel.
According to the Shin Bet, Alaa Sharauna, 26, of East Jerusalem was recruited by Hamas members in the Gaza Strip as part of an effort to form a “military cell” in the capital.
Sharauna told his interrogators that he had been asked to film various locations in Jerusalem on behalf of Hamas in Gaza — presumably to collect intelligence for future attacks — which would be easier for him to do than a Palestinian from the West Bank, as he had a blue Israeli identity card.
He was arrested on January 8.
Last summer, Baha’a Shejaiya, 21, of Deir Jarir near Ramallah, was recruited by Hamas shortly after he was released from prison, where he served a two-year sentence for planning to carry out a shooting and a suicide bombing attack for Hamas, the Shin Bet said.
He, like Kutaiba, was contacted by Hamas through Facebook — by a 24-year-old named Musa Aliyan from the Gaza city of Jabaliya — and was assured of the legitimacy of the offer through Al-Aqsa TV, according to the security service. Aliyan also presented himself as a journalist on social media.
Shejaiya was arrested on December 16, 2018.
Ten days later, 23-year-old Ahmad Abu-Aisha from Nablus was arrested on similar suspicions.
According to the Shin Bet, he was also contacted by Hamas and received messages through Al-Aqsa TV.
Abu-Aisha is suspected of recruiting another Nablus man, Sa’id Issa, 24, and planning to carry out a stabbing attack in an Israeli settlement, “inspired by the 2011 attack in which the Fogel family members were murdered,” the Shin Bet said.
According to the security service, at least two presenters on Al-Aqsa TV were used to pass messages between Gaza-based Hamas members and their operatives in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
In addition to the Quran quote method used with al-Nawaja’a, the presenters used other subtle methods of communication.
The Shin Bet identified two of the presenters as 30-year-old Islami Bader of Jabaliya and Raji Hams, 32, from Gaza City.
In one case, a recruit was passed a message by a newscaster placing a cup of tea on his desk and repeating a line from a song.
“By watching the broadcast, the operative in the West Bank received the validation of the things that the Gaza Strip operative had told him,” the Shin Bet said.
According to the security service, Israel first came to realize that Hamas was using Al-Aqsa TV in this way in October 2018. That led to the decision to bomb the station’s headquarters the next month, during a large flareup between the IDF and the Strip’s terror groups, which had fired some 500 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel.
At the time, the IDF said it had demolished the Al-Aqsa TV headquarters in “response to the terror attack that the Hamas terror group is leading against Israeli citizens.”
The army said the channel was “used by [Hamas] for military activities, including sending messages to terrorist operatives in the West Bank, calls for terror attacks and instructions on how to commit them.”
Israeli aircraft first fired a “warning missile” at the multi-story headquarters, which was captured live on air as personnel fled the building, before firing a number of missiles to flatten the building.
Shortly after the razing of the station’s building, the Hamas-affiliated outlet appeared poised to close, but was kept on air at the last minute because of an influx of money from the terror group.
Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh declared in a statement that Al-Aqsa TV’s broadcast would not be halted. He also said a “clear and direct decision” was made to keep the channel on air, without elaborating.
The Gaza City-based channel said that its financial crisis had been “partially resolved.”
Following the airstrikes, the channel briefly went off air, but soon resumed broadcasting from another location.
Al-Aqsa TV has said the damages amounted to some $4.5 million.
Israel also bombed the outlet’s headquarters in December 2008, during the first war to break out in Gaza in the wake of the 2005 disengagement.
In 2010, the US government designated Al-Aqsa TV as a terror group.
The station’s reporters have frequently praised violence against Israelis and rocket attacks on the Jewish state.
Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.