Analysis

Swift Operation Led to Capture of Israeli Teen's Suspected Murderer, Who Likely Acted Alone

The Shin Bet has refrained from labeling the murder a terror attack, but it's likely that the motive had a political aspect

Israel Defense Forces operating in Hebron, February 9, 2019.
IDF Spokesperson

A swift and effective operation by the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Police led to the arrest Friday night of a suspect in the murder of a 19-year-old Israeli woman whose body was found Thursday in a park on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Ori Ansbacher was buried Friday.

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Arafat Irfaiya, a 29-year-old Palestinian man from Hebron, was identified earlier Friday as a suspect on the basis of forensic evidence found at the scene. After that, a major effort by the security forces led to his swift arrest.

On Friday afternoon, the security services learned that he was hiding in a mosque in the West Bank town of El Bireh, near Ramallah. He was arrested by the police counterterrorism unit after he moved to an abandoned building near the mosque. Because he wasn’t carrying a gun and did not resist arrest, in contrast to several other murder suspects Israel has tried to apprehend in recent months, Irfaiya was taken into custody rather than being shot and killed during the arrest attempt.

Ori Ansbacher.

Most of the details of the investigation are under a gag order. What can be said is that Irfaiya had been jailed in Israel in the past, for the illegal possession of a knife. He has also been involved in disseminating propaganda for terrorist organizations, and many of his relatives are connected with Hamas. All of the offenses for which he was previously arrested in the past are considered low-level terrorism.

Irfaiya entered Israel illegally, a fact that highlights the remaining gaps in the West Bank separation barrier, over 16 years after work on its construction began.

As of now, Ansbacher’s murder appear to have been a case of a so-called lone-wolf terrorist exploiting an opportunity — a young woman by herself in a relatively isolated spot — rather than an attack planned in advance by an organized terrorist cell.

So far, the Shin Bet has declined to officially declare the incident a terror attack; the agency is apparently awaiting the results of Irfaiya’s interrogation. In similar cases in the past, suspects have often changed their stories under questioning. But Irfaiya may well have an interest in claiming that this was a terror attack, since that would entitle him to financial support from the Palestinian Authority.

Investigators said that Ansbacher was assaulted with great violence and cruelty. Nevertheless, and perhaps because the actual details remain under a gag order, the crime has been inflated on social media into an ISIS-style attack. Not for the first time, one of the people pouring fuel on the fire has been Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Yair, who posted an offensive tweet.

As in other shocking attacks of the past few months, including October’s murder in the Barkan industrial park, this attack has caused an uproar in Israel. That increases the risk of revenge attacks on Palestinians by right-wing extremists.

Contrary to the fears that were widespread two months ago, after two shooting attacks in the Ramallah area, Hamas doesn’t seem to be succeeding in its efforts to inflame the West Bank and to spark a confrontation in which Israel would also undermine the Palestinian Authority. Nevertheless, attacks like the murder of Ansbacher (who was from the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, near Bethlehem) and occasional incidents of violence between Palestinians and settlers (like the one that occurred a few weeks ago near the Shiloh-area settlement outposts north of Ramallah) could once again drag the West Bank into violence.

Talks over Gaza

The Gaza Strip isn’t quiet, either. During Friday’s regular demonstrations along the Gaza-Israel border, two Palestinians, aged 18 and 14, were killed by Israeli fire. One of those killed was a relative of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.

Some 7,000 people participated in the demonstrations. Hamas’ leadership continues to insist on bringing masses of people to the border fence every week. Under these circumstances — especially when Hamas isn’t taking forceful measures to prevent friction — many protesters will inevitably get too close to the fence, leading Israeli soldiers to shoot at them.

These incidents are happening despite relative optimism about the progress of talks between Egyptian intelligence officials and Hamas leaders in Gaza. A Hamas delegation has been in the Egyptian capital for several days.

Israeli police officers are seen near the area where the body of an Israeli teenager was found in Jerusalem on Feb. 8, 2019.
AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean

During these talks, proposals have been raised for additional steps to ease the humanitarian situation in the Strip. These include a further expansion of Gaza’s fishing zone (with Israeli permission) and Egypt’s agreement to open its Rafah border crossing to traffic from Gaza more regularly.