Four of the suspects in the murder of Kristine Luken
Four Palestinian militants suspected in the murder of American tourist Kristine Luken. Photo by Michal Palti
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The Jerusalem District Police released Wednesday details regarding its investigation into a cell of Palestinian militants suspected in two murders and 19 other security incidents since 1997.

The cell is alleged to be behind the recent stabbing of an American tourist and her friend in the Jerusalem hills five weeks ago; the tourist, Kristine Luken, was killed, while her friend, Kaye Wilson, managed to flee the attackers with serious wounds.

Police believe that the same cell carried out the murder of 53-year-old Netta Blatt-Sorek, a resident of Zichron Ya'akov, whose body was found a year ago near the Jerusalem-area monastery of Beit Jamal last year.

The militants are suspected in two cases of attempted murder, one count of rape, another of attempted rape, seven incidents of robbery, seven cases of breaking-and-entering, and for shooting at an Israeli military jeep.

Jerusalem District Police chief Aharon Franco said that the cell started off as a group of petty criminals and turned into a nationalist threat when it began carrying out attacks to avenge the January 2010 assassination of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, an incident which has been widely blamed on Israel's Mossad.

Thirteen members of the cell have already been arrested; four of them are expected to be indicted on Wednesday.

Police began detaining the suspects in December 2010, about a day after Luken's body was found near Moshav Mata, where she and Wilson had been attacked by two men while hiking in the area. Wilson managed to survive after she played dead and then dragged herself bound and hand-cuffed to the road nearby.

The suspects were all known to police prior to the investigation and most of them had served jail-time in the past.

Wilson's detailed witness testimony enabled police to narrow down the suspects and link the cell to the other security incidents in question, Franco told reporters in a briefing on Wednesday after the gag order on the case was lifted.

Israel Police, together with Shin Bet forces, special task units of the Border Police and Israel Defense Forces arrested three of the suspects – Kifah Ghanimat, the suspected ringleader, Mohammed Ghanimat, and IIyad Fatpatah – a day after Luken's body was discovered. The suspects are all residents of the West Bank.

All three confessed to Luken's murder and led investigators to suspect their involvement in Blatt-Sorek's murder a year earlier. Police say the three men told interrogators they wanted to kill a Jew - though Luken was in fact a Christian.

The DNA sample taken from Kifah Gnimat matched the DNA findings preserved from the site where Blatt-Sorek's body was found. In his confession, Kifah Gnimat implicated Ibrahim Ghanimat, who was subsequently arrested.

Police had not been convinced that Blatt-Sorek had been murdered due to inconclusive autopsy results, and had not ruled out the possibility that her death had been suicide.

Her family insisted that she would not have killed herself, however and urged police to investigate the case as a murder.

Franco stressed during his briefing Wednesday that he had agreed to "look into the severe option and treat [Blatt-Sorek's case] as a murder" despite the expert opinion provided by the pathologist.

Police investigators began to suspect during their questioning that the cell was involved in a series of criminal activities in the Jerusalem-area city of Beit Shemesh since 1997. The suspected ringleader, Kifah Ghanimat, was found to have had a hand in most of the perpetrated crimes.

In addition to the murders, Ghanimat is personally suspected of raping a Beit Shemesh resident in a nearby cave. The rest of the group is suspected of stabbing an Israeli couple in the same area, robbing tourists, stabbing tourists, breaking and entering homes in the area and car theft.