The kidnapping and murder of Gilad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah in Gush Etzion ended early Tuesday morning as expected – if delayed – with the killing of the two kidnappers, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisheh, in a gun battle with soldiers from the Israel Defence Forces’ counterterrorism unit. The commander of the cell, Husam Qawasmeh, was arrested about two months ago.
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The end of the affair – “the lifting of the curse,” as Minister Uri Ariel put it somewhat oddly Tuesday morning – was the result of an intensive intelligence and operational effort by the Shin Bet security service, the IDF and the Israel Police.
If anything here is surprising, it is the fact that both the murderers remained at large for so long, more than 100 days, before the security forces caught up with them. The deaths of Qawasmeh and Abu Aisheh were a foregone conclusion: They were armed and fleeing capture, and there was an intelligence assessment that they were planning another attack, for demonstrative purposes, even as they knew that the troops were on their trail. Under such circumstances (according to an IDF report, the two terrorists also fired at soldiers surrounding the building), it should come as no surprise that no risks were taken during the operation, and the terrorists were shot and killed before they could hit any of the soldiers.
The kidnapping of the three teenagers rocked the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and escalated the conflict between Israel and Hamas, which continued into Operation Protective Edge. The compartmentalized Hamas cell in the Hebron region invested substantial effort in the kidnapping – planning, acquiring equipment, using collaborators, keeping it secret. Still, Shin Bet officials say that the kidnappers had more luck than brains. They also made quite a few mistakes during the attack itself. Things started going wrong for them from the moment the three teenagers got into the car.
The interrogation of the cell commander and collaborators gives rise to the belief that the cell had planned to kidnap one Israeli. The tragic end of the incident almost could have been predicted from the moment they picked up the three Israeli hitchhikers. One of the teenagers suspected the men who had picked them up and called the police emergency hotline. The police handled his call with awful slowness, and the response of the rest of the security forces was delayed as well. But the kidnappers murdered the three teenagers in cold blood even as the call was in progress.
The delayed location of the two murderers early this morning puts something of a crack in the myth of Israel’s complete control, in terms of intelligence and operations, of the West Bank. It turns out that even under the watchful eye of the defense establishment, and even with quite a bit of assistance from the PA’s security agencies, wanted terrorists can evade capture for a relatively long time. Even this success now should not exempt the intelligence community, and in this case the Shin Bet first and foremost, from a profound internal inquiry into what went wrong.
One question that remains insufficiently answered has to do with the link between the terror cell and Hamas’s leadership in Gaza. Israeli intelligence tended at first toward minimizing the value of the link. After the fact, it became known that Husam’s brother was a prisoner who had been released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange and deported to Gaza, and that he had been responsible for the transfer of 220,000 shekels from Gaza to the West Bank for the kidnapping.
Even if there had been no specific operational order here, it is obvious that the cell was operating according to a general directive from Gaza – to kidnap Israelis for use as bargaining chips for releasing prisoners – with funding from Hamas’s leadership in Gaza.
The end of this sad affair came on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. This appears to be the conclusion of a long and difficult summer that began on the night of June 12 with the kidnapping of the three teenagers.
The indirect talks in Cairo between Israel and Hamas for a permanent cease-fire in the Gaza Strip are supposed to resume Wednesday. We should hope that the end of the manhunt for the murderers also marks the end of the escalation in the current round, rather than the start of a new escalation after a month-long cease-fire.