A seasoned military figure who a month ago was asked about the probable end to the search for those who killed four Israelis in Kiryat Arba got it right: The terrorists, he said, will die in an Israeli military operation. That is the most convenient outcome for all sides.
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And that is what indeed happened Friday morning. Officers from a police anti-terror unit, with support from infantry soldiers, raided the hideout near Kiryat Arba of eight members of the Hamas terror cell that opened fire on a car near the entrance to Kiryat Arba on the night of August 31. Yitzhak Ames, Talya Ames, Kochava Even-Chaim and Avishai Shindler, all of Beit Hagai, were killed in the attack.
In Friday's operation, Israeli troops surrounded the house. After an exchange of fire the Israeli forces used bulldozers in an effort to force the fugitives to come out. Nashaat al-Karmi, 33, and Mamoun al-Natshe, 24 were killed during the operation. In recent months Karmi had been head of the armed wing of Hamas in the southern West Bank. The other six were arrested, with a number of weapons in their possession. There were no Israeli casualties.
Several Hamas militants were arrested after the August attack in an attempt to find the perpetrators. The Shin Bet security service interrogated hundreds of detainees in the past month. One of these interrogations elicited the names of the cell members and the location of their hideout and made Friday's operation possible.
Neither prophetic abilities nor insider information were necessary for the prediction. Anyone who has been closely following events in the West Bank over the past three years had no cause to be surprised by what happened on Friday. The fate of Natshe and Karmi was similar to that of the three former Fatah members from Nablus who killed Rabbi Meir Chai in December.
The most recent manhunt took more than a month, compared to just a day and a half for Chai's killers, but despite the careful compartmentalization employed by Hamas in the end the cell was tracked down. Part of the credit, at least, goes to the security forces of the Palestinian Authority.
Both Israel and the PA had an interest in bringing the affair to a swift conclusion. Arresting the suspects itself would have put the PA in a very uncomfortable position, drawing fire from two directions. The Palestinian leaders would face pressure from their people to free the men or at the very least not to hand them over to Israel. For its part Israel could be expected to demand that they be released to face trial in Israel, all the while threatening military force in the event of a refusal.
But killing the terrorists would significantly pacify the settlers in the extremely tense area of Hebron and be perceived as meting out swift "justice." (That was precisely how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it in a congratulatory message to the troops Friday ).
The fact that both suspects were armed and opened fire against the forces made it easier for the commanders in the field. In these circumstances their decision cannot be challenged. The extent of the contribution of Palestinian intelligence to the final part of the manhunt is not known, but from the PA's perspective the deaths of the terrorists put an end to the case.
Even Hamas gained something: two more dead heroes, symbols of success of a type that has increasingly eluded the organization in recent years, at least in the West Bank. The funerals of Natshe and Karmi turned into demonstrations of power for Hamas, with thousands taking part. Hebron has remained one of the more powerful outposts of Hamas in the West Bank, even though the PA has carried out veritable economic and social revolutions in the area.
The affair proved once more that Hamas is still capable of activating sleeper cells despite the tremendous efforts of the PA and Israel to render the Hamas impotent in the West Bank.
The cell's operation suggested a certain level of sophistication. Its members selected the location and the timing for the operation with great care, and murdered all the passengers of the Israeli vehicle. Friday's operation in no way marks the end of Hamas military networks in the West Bank. Other Israelis were injured in additional attacks immediately after the August 31 killings. Their perpetrators are apparently still at large.