Israeli Security Forces Ramp Up Hunt for Hamas Cell in West Bank

Israel mulls expelling senior Hamas operatives from the West Bank to Gaza; more than 100 Palestinians have been arrested, most of them Hamas men.

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Israeli soldiers leave after inspecting a house where live Palestinians in the West Bank village of Tafoh, near Hebron on June 15, 2014.
Israeli soldiers leave after inspecting a house where live Palestinians in the West Bank village of Tafoh, near Hebron on June 15, 2014.

Israel’s security forces on Sunday intensified the hunt for members of the Hebron Hamas cell after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped at the Gush Etzion junction last Thursday.

More than 100 Palestinians have been arrested over the past two days, most of them Hamas operatives. Arrests were continuing last night in the Hebron and Bethlehem areas.

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Analysts surmise that the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Defense Forces have made progress piecing together the attack. Security sources on Sunday stressed that they have not located the kidnappers, nor do they know where the three teens – Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrah – are being held or what their condition is.

Palestinians also report that Israeli soldiers are surrounding a house in the Hebron area. Explosions were heard in the vicinity. According to a Palestinian report, an anti-tank rocket was fired toward the house. Palestinian eyewitnesses told Haaretz that three people, including a 7-year-old child, were wounded by the rocket explosion.

Meanwhile, four Grad rockets were fired on Sunday evening at Ashkelon, two of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome system, while the other two landed in open areas. While rocket fragments were found in various parts of the southern city, none caused any damage. Earlier on Sunday, an Iron Dome battery was deployed in Ashdod.

According to the IDF, it is not clear whether the West Bank kidnapping was an independent initiative by the local Hebron cell, or the result of a directive from the Hamas leadership in Gaza. However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday accused Hamas of being responsible for the kidnapping.

Police have started to investigate the poor handling of a phone call that was apparently received from one of the kidnapped boys only minutes after they got into the car at the junction. On Sunday evening, it was cleared for publication that one of the teens called the police emergency line minutes after being abducted and said, “We’ve been kidnapped.” Security sources admit that the bungled handling of the call gave the kidnappers precious time to hide their victims and cover their tracks.

The Israeli government, meanwhile, is weighing whether to expel senior Hamas men from the West Bank to Gaza as a way of pressuring the organization to help resolve the kidnapping of the three teens. A senior Israeli official said the Justice Ministry held a discussion on Sunday on whether this was legally feasible.

The assessments and discussions in the Prime Minister’s Office over the past few days have included talk of ways of punishing Hamas and pressuring the organization’s senior officials. The Israeli source said that among options being discussed were expelling senior Hamas men from the West Bank to Gaza; demolishing the homes of Hamas operatives; and sanctions against Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails.

Justice Ministry Tzipi Livni, together with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and other ministry officials, convened on Sunday to explore whether such steps were in keeping with international law and would stand up to challenges in the High Court of Justice. No decisions were made, but the research is ongoing.

Israel’s security cabinet is expected to convene again this afternoon. Its meeting on Saturday night was devoted solely to an intelligence briefing. It isn’t clear whether today’s meeting will involve decisions on how to act against Hamas.

Shirly Seidler and Jack Khoury contributed to this report.

Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Frenkel and Gilad Shaer.

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