MESS Report / Does Palestinian Group 'Behind' West Bank Shooting Actually Exist?

Despite describing itself as part of Fatah's military wing, the group chose to operate in an area that is a Hamas stronghold - Hebron.

The identity of the group behind yesterday's West Bank shooting attack that left a police officer dead and four wounded remains unclear.

Hebron attack
Emil Salman

Last night a group calling itself the "Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades - Imad Mughniyeh Group" claimed responsibility.

A faction going by the same name has released similar announcements after previous terror attacks, but it is unclear whether any such group really exists.

Like many other Palestinian militant cells, this one is named after the Hezbollah leader assassinated in Damascus, reportedly by Israel, two and a half years ago.

The label could, however, just be a cover used as a decoy to divert the attention of the Israel Defense Forces or Shin Bet security service.

Moreover, despite describing itself as part of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, Fatah's military wing, the group chose to operate in an area that is a Hamas stronghold - Hebron, and more specifically the nearby town of Dura.

"Don't write that we're all Hamas supporters," Ali, a taxi driver from Dura, told Haaretz yesterday at the checkpoint leading into the town. Following the attack, the IDF closed all travel to and from Dura.

One of Hamas' leaders in the West Bank, Sheikh Nayef Rajoub (brother of Fatah figure Jibril Rajoub ), grew up in Dura. And despite successes racked up in the town by the IDF, Shin Bet and Palestinian security services, the town still boasts terror infrastructure that can cause considerable damage and loss of life.

Initial investigations reveal that at 7:18 A.M. the initial distress call was received from the police car transporting the five police officers from Be'er Sheva to Hebron.

The terrorists who ambushed the car apparently drove to the nearby village of Dir Ibzah and left their car there, then waited beside the road between the settlements of Otniel and Beit Haggai on a rocky outcrop covered in olive trees.

The cell likely included a handful of armed individuals, as the police car appeared to have been hit by fire from a number of machine guns.

The driver was lightly hurt and continued driving, but Advanced Staff Sergeant Major Yehoshua "Shuki" Sofer, sitting in the left seat of the middle row of the vehicle, was critically wounded in the attack and later died of his wounds.

Settlers point to roadblocks

Settler leaders in the area pointed an accusatory finger at the army over its decision to lift several checkpoints and roadblocks to ease Palestinian transportation. The terrorists involved in yesterday's attack, however, moved along traffic arteries that were open even before the latest round of checkpoint removals.

Still, terrorist cells undoubtedly find their missions easier to complete given the lighter Israeli military presence in the area.

Israel finds itself in a bind, as removing checkpoints makes it easier for the Palestinian Authority to register significant achievements in maintaining security for West Bank residents - performance Israel has heartily praised for its improvement in recent months.

Sofer's killing is the first deadly attack in the West Bank this year.

Five and a half months have passed since the murder of Rabbi Meir Hai near Nablus in December of last year. The roads of the West Bank are still relatively safe for Israelis, following years in which many feared traversing them.

The past teaches us that sooner or later the Shin Bet will trap this cell as well. The central question until then is whether the Palestinian security services will beat their Israeli counterparts to the punch, and whether before it is caught, the cell manages to strike again.