How did the Shin Bet fail to spot the Hebron kidnap cell in time?

Israel’s intelligence services have a remarkable record of success in the West Bank. Not this time. Hard lessons will have to be learned about the failure to thwart the killings of the three Israeli teens

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.

An Israeli soldier patrols near the area where the bodies of three Israeli teenagers were found, in the village of Halhul, near the West Bank city of Hebron, Tuesday, July 1, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Majdi Mohammed)
An Israeli soldier patrols near the area where the bodies of three Israeli teenagers were found, in the village of Halhul, near the West Bank city of Hebron, Tuesday, July 1, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Majdi Mohammed)

Ibrahim Hamed, the former head of Hamas’s military wing in the West Bank, the man responsible for the murders of dozens of Israelis, was thought of as a “ghost” for many years. Almost a legend. The Shin Bet and the Israel Defense Forces were not able to catch up to him, as he slipped through their grasp time and again. Only after eight years of pursuit was he captured in 2006 in a safe house in Ramallah’s al-Balou neighborhood.

People involved in the search for “The Sheikh” — who is today 49 and serving 54 life sentences — say one of the basic things that allowed him to evade capture for so long was his refusal to use a mobile phone. Israel’s security establishment managed to track his calls only twice over all those years, and even those instances were calls made from public phones.

Could it be that this is the secret of the cell responsible for the kidnapping and killing of the three Israeli teens on June 12? Could their avoidance of mobile phones and email before the kidnapping have prevented the Shin Bet from foiling it ahead of time?

Perhaps the question should be asked differently. Is it possible that the Shin Bet failed to discover the cell because it relied too heavily on advanced technology (SIGINT) and not enough on human sources (HUMINT)?

We became spoiled. For many years, the IDF and Shin Bet accustomed us to an almost 100% success rate. It was only close to 100%, mostly because of “lone wolf” attacks — terrorists who did not rely on a known network, who operated alone, making it almost impossible to reach them in time.

But still, the belief among the public — which politicians made sure to reinforce — was that, because of the almost-free access the IDF and Shin Bet enjoyed in the West Bank, their intelligence coverage allowed them to foil attacks and keep the relative quiet in the territories.

Not this time. Alongside the praise, we must sometimes ask difficult questions, and there are plenty in this tragic case. How was it that, in the end, a not-insignificant group of Hamas members managed to set up an entire terrorist infrastructure right under the Shin Bet’s nose? And we are not talking about only the two men whose names have been publicized, prime suspects Marwan Kawasme and Amer Abu Aysha, though even these two were not unknown to Israeli intelligence. Both of them had sat in Israeli prisons — Kawasme in a PA prison as well — and were interrogated by PA intelligence services multiple times in the last year. They come from families who are deep supporters of Hamas.

Marwan Kawasme (left) and Amer Abu Aysha (right), suspected by Israel of kidnapping and killing three Israeli teens. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Marwan Kawasme (left) and Amer Abu Aysha (right), suspected by Israel of kidnapping and killing three Israeli teens. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Amer’s father, Omar, is a known Hamas operative, as was his brother, Zeid, who was killed in 2005 in a firefight with the IDF. Marwan learned in an academy identified with Hamas, and is part of a family that is seen as a symbol of Hamas in Hebron.

To put it simply, Kawasme and Abu Aysha are the core of Hamas in the southern West Bank, part of the spine of its military branch.

Yet they did not act alone. They clearly had people to help them in preparing a hiding place (where they are sitting as these words are being written), buying food, obtaining a car, and arranging transport from one place to another during the operation. They also apparently had someone to maintain communications with the people who funded the attack. Someone also helped them transfer the bodies to the Khirbat Arnab ruins area, and perhaps even helped to hide them.

In short, there were between five and 10 people, if not more (not including the outer circle of car thieves and weapons dealers), who aided them directly in carrying out the attack. And they all managed to evade the Shin Bet.

Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen (photo credit: Flash90)
Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen (photo credit: Flash90)

There are plenty of questions that should be asked of the man at the head of the Shin Bet, Yoram Cohen, who has been seen several times in recent weeks in the Hebron area. (Some of the people who ran into him say that he was even wearing a baseball cap that read “Head of the Shin Bet.”)

Why was Amer’s father, Omar, arrested a few days ago, more than two weeks since the killings? Does someone in the Shin Bet really believe that his son contacted him, and they would be able to learn the location of the kidnapper?

Why only on Wednesday, 20 days after the attack, was the destroyed family car taken for laboratory tests? Why did the Shin Bet only decide to reveal the identities of the two prime suspects two weeks after the incident — after the whole of Hebron knew who they were, and only the Israeli public was kept in the dark? Did the Shin Bet know that the land where the bodies were found, the Khirbat Arnab ruins west of Halhul, was bought not long ago by the Kawasme family?

It could be that it is unfair to ask these questions since the Shin Bet operatives who managed countless times in recent years to foil similar attacks can’t even respond. These people dedicate their lives and sacrifice for the safety and quiet of all of us.

Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, the three Israeli teenagers who were seized on June 12 and whose bodies were found on June 30. (photo credit: IDF/AP)
Eyal Yifrach, 19; Gilad Shaar, 16; and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, the three Israeli teenagers who were seized on June 12 and whose bodies were found on June 30. (photo credit: IDF/AP)

But still, the job of the media is to point to failures, not only to praise. And in this case, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that this was a failure of the Shin Bet, who did not manage to discern the Hamas cell’s intentions ahead of time.

How did Abu Aysha and Kawasme manage to pull off the attack and stay under the radar? It could be that they learned something from Ibrahim Hamid and his shunning of the wonders of modern technology. Abu Aysha’s mother told The Times of Israel on Wednesday that her son left his mobile phone at home when he disappeared a few hours before the kidnapping. The Shin Bet confiscated the device.

I dialed Abu Aysha’s number. “The number you have dialed is not available,” said the Arabic announcement. “If you want to leave a message, press the number 1.”

In the Shin Bet, it is emphasized that in 2013-2014 alone, close to 300 serious attacks were foiled, including 64 kidnapping attempts and 17 suicide attacks. But intelligence is not a 100% proposition, and every attack that the Shin Bet did not manage to stop is deeply analyzed and lessons are learned.

In the last decade alone, the Shin Bet discovered and thwarted dozens of potentially lethal plots by Hamas in Hebron. Emphasized, too, is that HUMINT (running agents) was — and still is — a central part of the Shin Bet’s activity, alongside advances in SIGINT-cyber capabilities to keep pace with technological developments among the various enemies.

Khirbat Arnab ruins

On Wednesday morning, a short time after the IDF left, this reporter reached the Khirbat Arnab ruins west of Halhul, the place where the three Israeli youths were buried. The land belonged until recently to the Zmara family from Halhul; Kawasme family members bought it not long ago. The drive and trek to the spot leave no doubt that the suspects knew the terrain well. The two were residents of Hebron, a 15-minute drive away, and there was no reason for them to know this patch of ground.

In order to reach the Khirbat Arnab ruins, one must leave Halhul heading west, toward Kfar Nuba. Next to a house there, which is undergoing construction, runs a paved road that turns into dirt after a kilometer. After a few more minutes, you turn left on a dirt road that a regular car would have difficulty navigating, go up a hill, and from there only 4×4 vehicles can continue.

That is to say, if the vehicle in which the teens were kidnapped was the Hyundai 35 found burnt out near Dura in southwest Hebron, then it stands to reason that a different vehicle took the terrorists and their three victims to the Arnab ruins. The plot itself is bounded by a fence, and the gate is locked. The killers, it seemed, had the key.

The kidnapping itself, from near the entrance to Alon Shvut, was carried out at approximately 10:20 p.m. June 12 on the road heading west, toward the Green Line. The call to the police hotline was made five to seven minutes after, from almost the same spot, as the vehicle was heading in the opposite direction, meaning that the Hyundai stopped for a couple of minutes during which it became clear to the teens that they had been kidnapped, then it headed back from where it came.

Hovav Landau, left, along with two soldiers in the Halhul region Monday (photo credit: Binyamin Tropper/ courtesy)
Hovav Landau (left), with two soldiers in the Halhul region Monday (photo credit: Courtesy Binyamin Tropper)

The Khirbat Arnab plot, according to this reporter’s investigation, is about an 18-minute drive from where the call was made to the police. From there, the terrorists turned south on Highway 60. But they didn’t travel straight to the burial site.

According to Haaretz’s Amos Harel and Yaniv Kovovich, they drove to the Beit Kahil area, and there performed a “violent disconnect”: They removed the batteries from the mobile phones of Gil-ad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel. It could be that the cars were switched at that point, with one heading north to the Khirbat Arnab ruins and the Hyundai going to Dura in order to be destroyed there — to confuse the Israelis.

Eyal Yifrach’s phone continued to transmit signals until 11:50 p.m., the time the car was burned — a full hour-and-a-half after the kidnapping.

Who transported the Hyundai driver from Dura? Did the two killers manage to carry the three youths on their backs and bury them alone? These and other questions indicate that the cell had outside help.

Some neighbors, who lives a few hundred meters from the plot, claim they didn’t see any unusual activity until the day before the bodies were found on June 30.

“I didn’t see any movement before the soldiers arrived,” Mahmoud, who lives a house overlooking the plot, told The Times of Israel. “The day before the bodies were found, many soldiers arrived. They continued to arrive overnight and the next day.”

Ahmed Karajat, who works on a tractor in the area, told The Times of Israel how he was detained by Israeli security forces. “Only after the helicopter took the bodies did they free us.” He said that many plots in the area were bought by families from Hebron in recent years. “All of the houses you see here belong to families from the city.”

It is safe to assume that the two killers are still in the area so familiar to them — Hebron, Halhul, and perhaps one of the neighboring villages. This is the only advantage they have: their familiarity with the terrain. If they move to another sector, they will be forced to wander in an unfamiliar area, relying on others, any of whom could turn out to be an informant.

But in the end, they know, whether they’re in Hebron or somewhere else, that it’s only a question of time until Shin Bet agents and special forces soldiers find them. And then, they probably won’t be laughing and singing as they were on the recording, seconds after they murdered the teenagers.


“An eye for an eye, and the whole world goes blind,” said Mahatma Gandhi.

Last Shabbat, after a stop in Halhul and Beit Kahil, I traveled along Highway 35 toward Highway 60 in the West Bank. At the junction, I noticed an old Palestinian with a bunch of bags, trying to hitch a ride. I stopped the car and invited him in.

“Where are you from?” he asked in Arabic.

I explained that I am a Jew. “I’m sorry, there is no trust these days,” he said, apologizing that he did not want to join me.

“We don’t kidnap,” I told him in Arabic, and seconds later I remembered that there had, in fact, been several instances.

At the beginning of the week, Jibril Rajoub, a senior Fatah official, told me that it’s only a question of time before extremist Jews murder a Palestinian. Then, early Wednesday morning, reports began to pour in about the kidnapping and murder of a 16-year-old youth from Shuafat, Muhammed Abu Khdeir. The family claims the murder was carried out by Jews for nationalistic reasons. The police said they are also investigating the possibility that it was done for criminal motives.

The dozens of youths who took to the streets of Shuafat and threw stones at police did not wait for the investigation to end. For them, it didn’t matter — the boy was kidnapped and killed by Jews. I saw and heard a lot of anger and frustration there, of all places, a relatively quiet neighborhood in northern Jerusalem, a stone’s throw from French Hill.

Palestinians clash with Israeli border police in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat following the discovery of the body of a Palestinian teen from East Jerusalem who was found in the Jerusalem forest, in a suspected revenge attack for the killing of three Jewish teens. July 02, 2014. (Photo credit: Hadas Parush/FLASH90)
Palestinians clash with Israeli Border Police in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat following the discovery of the body of a Palestinian teen from East Jerusalem, found in the Jerusalem Forest in a suspected revenge attack for the killing of three Jewish teens, July 2, 2014. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

As of the weekend, it looked as if the killing was done for nationalistic reasons. Sadly, this is likely not the last such instance, and as expected, it caused violent clashes.

But once again, the West Bank surprised everyone with its apathy. No Palestinian city joined the demonstrations. It might be that it is still too early for relief, and on the first Friday of Ramadan, everything could change. But even in Hebron, the residents preferred to focus on preparing for the Iftar breakfast meal than to identify with their brothers in Shuafat.

The Third Intifada may break out someday, but as things look right now, people would prefer that it not happen while they’re fasting.

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