A Budding West Bank Hamas Cell Sought to Cause Major Bloodshed
Israel’s Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency recently announced that it had broken up an extraordinarily dangerous secret terrorist network that Hamas was building in the West Bank. The network was unusually alarming, due to the scope of damage that it sought to cause.
The attacks were to have started in early October, but the Shin Bet stepped in before then. In addition, Hamas planned to use the cell to strike crowded targets in Israel in conjunction with one of the recent escalations in violence between Gaza terrorist factions and Israel.
Another unusual feature of this cell was the fact that it was orchestrated directly by Hamas’ military wing headquarters in the Gaza Strip. Previously, West Bank cells were remotely managed by Hamas operatives who originally hailed from the West Bank and were released in the 2011 Shalit prisoner exchange deal with Israel.
Hamas’ military wing in Gaza has embarked on an intense West Bank recruitment drive, using video chats to train terrorist recruits on how to prepare explosives, and how to select crowded targets for the planned atrocities. According to the Shin Bet, the explosives that the recruits were learning to use were highly advanced, and more powerful than any of those used by West Bank terror groups to date.
Gaza and Israel have been on the brink of conflict since Hamas began organizing mass riots and infiltration attempts on the Gaza-Israel border in March. During flare ups, Hamas engaged in intense rocket fire on Israeli civilians, drawing Israeli Air Force retaliatory strikes during rounds of fighting throughout the summer and early fall.
Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and others fired approximately 460 projectiles into southern Israel on November 12-13 — the most intense volley of rockets southern Israeli civilians had seen in a 24 hour span. Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system intercepted about 100 rockets heading for populated areas. Still, the latest rocket attacks killed a Palestinian construction worker in the Israeli city of Ashkelon, and critically injured an Israeli woman. An additional 50 Israelis were wounded in the attacks, most sustaining light shrapnel wounds.
Most of the rocket fire was directed against Israeli villages situated near the Gaza Strip, reflecting Hamas’ desire to escalate the situation. It was during such an escalation that Hamas had hoped to activate “the West Bank front” and destabilize the region. Interrogations of the captured suspects “revealed that Hamas in Gaza pressed the West Bank operatives to carry out the attacks as soon as possible,” the Shin Bet said in a statement.
The Shin Bet stressed that the latest terrorist cell “is different to known Hamas efforts in recent years in its scope and potential for danger.” Had the cell been able to pursue its mission, the scope of its attacks would have created a “a new reality,” the intelligence agency warned.
In order to communicate with the West Bank recruits, Hamas exploited Gazan civilians who received permits for live-saving Israeli hospital care, as well as other civilians who had permits to enter Israel for meetings with business partners in the West Bank, the investigation found. The civilians “were asked” to deliver messages and instructions to the West Bank terror cell recruits, according to the Shin Bet.
“This is not the first time that Hamas is exploiting the humanitarian field in order to realize military activities in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank],” the Shin Bet said.
The September arrest of a 25-year-old Hamas member Awis Rajoub, who is a resident of the town of Dura near Hebron, led to a breakthrough that uncovered the plot. Rajoub was arrested for allegedly carrying out missions for Hamas after he informed “a number of his friends and relatives about his terrorist activities, and involved them in purchases of means designated for the preparation of explosive devices,” the Shin Bet said.
The recruitment process began when a Gaza operative invited Rajoub to join the Hamas military wing, and trained him in making remote-controlled bombs. Rajoub received instructions from his Gaza handler in August, telling him to go to a medicine storage facility in Ramallah to pick up a cell phone in order to continue his communications.
Rajoub allegedly recruited two Hamas members from the village of Beit Kahil, near Hebron, who were told to identify targets in Israel and prepare the bombs. Hamas in Gaza told Rajoub to complete the cell’s preparations by the end of September, and to conduct the attack at the start of October.
Rajoub’s handler then informed him to expect a meeting with an elderly Gaza woman who received a permit to cross into Israel for medical treatment. That meeting occurred in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. The woman passed on a pair of pants to Rajoub, which had instructions for activating a cell phone sewn into a cloth strip. He then communicated with his Gaza handlers with the phone, receiving video instructions and video chats with a Gazan bomb assembly expert, according to the investigation.
The depth of Hamas’s West Bank cell-building activities became clearer when the Shin Bet learned that Hamas dispatched two Gaza women, one who was receiving cancer treatment, and her sister — a mother of nine — to a café in West Bank city of Ramallah. Hamas member Fouad Dar Khalil, who had served 14 years in an Israeli prison for a previous gun attack on an Israeli vehicle, was working there.
The women passed on a suitcase with a hidden letter from Hamas’ military wing. The Shin Bet said that the sisters’ departure from Gaza and the transfer of the secret message “was carried with the coordination, and under the guidance, of their cousin, Muhammad Abu Kwaik, 36, a Hamas military wing operative, who is known to be in contact with terrorists and to assist them in their operations.”
The Shin Bet arrested Kwaik in mid-October.
The investigation “revealed the two women were aware of the contents of the suitcase,” the Shin Bet said. During questioning, the women said they were sent to the West Bank on behalf of a Gaza Hamas militant named Ashraf Sabah, 37, who had served 12 years in an Israeli prison for severe terrorist offenses. Sabah was behind the recruitment and handling of Dar Khalil, the Shin Bet found.
Earlier this month, the Shin Bet’s chief Nadav Argaman announced that Israel thwarted 480 significant attacks in 2018 so far, including 280 shootings, 76 bomb attacks, six suicide bombings, and seven kidnapping plots.
Israel also broke up 220 West Bank Hamas terrorist cells this year. The numbers provide a staggering reminder of the extent of the security threat that Israel faces, and how deceptive the current sense of calm really is. A Shin Bet official described the latest plot as part of a “long series of attempts” by Hamas to recruit terrorists in the West Bank and direct attacks.
Despite the multiple failures in conducting such attacks, Hamas continues to try, the official said, reflecting a strategy chosen by Hamas’ leadership to destabilize the West Bank “at any price.”
This activity “constitutes a central and dangerous element for instability, and is an immediate and substantial threat to the region,” the official added.
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the Israel correspondent for IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly. His book The Virtual Caliphate explores the online jihadist presence.