The skirmish in the South Hebron Hills late Tuesday was the first time the Israeli security forces had confronted a third armed presence in the West Bank – not the Palestinian Authority or Fatah and not Hamas, either, but a radical Salafist Islamic group operating independently of the established organizations. The killing of three wanted men from the cell was preceded by a round of arrests in the Hebron and Nablus areas. There have been similar clashes between Salafist operatives and the Palestinian security forces in recent months.
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The presence of the Salafis, most of whom are not violent, is now being felt in the West Bank, nearly a decade after they established themselves in the Gaza Strip. Last year, saw a rise in their organized operations, most of which are not political and do not involve terror activity. In East Jerusalem, in particular, one stream called Hizb a-Tahrir stands out, though its activities aren’t violent. Still, there have recently been large assemblies of Salafist groups at several locations in the West Bank, including in the Hebron area. “Suddenly, from nowhere, you hear that 30,000 people are attending a gathering at the stadium in the South Hebron Hills,” a senior military official told Haaretz.
The rise in popularity of the Salafis in the West Bank is apparently the result of disappointment with the PA and the difficulties that Hamas, which is being pressured by both the PA and Israel, is having in presenting a viable, stable alternative. On the margins of the Salafist movements, there is a violent jihadist arm under the influence of al-Qaida’s violent ideology, which has already manifested itself in cells in the Gaza Strip. One can assume that the increased activity of factions with similar ideologies, both in the Sinai Peninsula and especially in the murderous Syrian civil war, strengthens support for them in the West Bank.
Last week, the Shin Bet Security Service arrested five members of one such armed squad in villages in the Hebron region and in a village near Nablus. The detainees, like the two men killed on Tuesday, are in their late twenties and have no previous record of security offenses or membership in a terror organization; nor had they done any time in Israeli prisons. From the moment they appeared on the Shin Bet’s radar screen, two elite units were activated – the Border Police SWAT team and the Shin Bet’s special operations unit - with the Israel Defense Forces operating in the outer circles. The army said that the two killed were considered the heads of the cell and were carrying pistols. Two explosive devices were found in the car they’d been traveling in. The border policemen fired first at the car, but as of last night it still wasn’t clear whether there had been an exchange of fire.
According to the Shin Bet, the terror squad members were preparing explosive charges and kidnapping attacks targeting both Israelis and people associated with the PA. The cell prepared hideouts, acquired weapons and manufactured explosives. Additional members of the cell were still being hunted down on Tuesday.
The IDF officer who oversaw Tuesday’s operation, Judea and Samaria Forces commander Brig. Gen. Tamir Yadai, was wounded in same area around Hebron 14 years ago, in a clash with a Hamas terrorist in which a border policeman was killed.