Israel's defense establishment believes it has narrowed down the identities of the two Hamas militants who kidnapped three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank two weeks ago, it emerged Thursday after a gag order was lifted.
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The Shin Bet security service revealed the two militants' names in a statement: Marwan Qawasmeh and and Amer Abu Aisheh, two known operatives in the Hebron area.
In a statement on Qawasmeh and Abu Aisheh, the Shin Bet security service said the two were considered suspects immediately after the abduction, adding that ever since, “the Shin Bet and the Israel Defense Forces have pursued the men, first and foremost in order to locate the kidnapped teens.”
Both men were known to be missing from the day of the kidnapping, two weeks ago. Their homes were raided about three days after the abduction, and many of their relatives were arrested. The Shin Bet said in its statement that both were involved with Hamas in the Hebron area. According to Palestinian sources, both men’s wives — Qawasmeh’s wife is eight months’ pregnant — were arrested and detained briefly.
A number of other suspects from the men’s Hamas cell have been arrested and questioned about their role in the kidnapping. Attorney Fadi Qawasmeh, who is representing four of Marwan Qawasmeh’s brothers, told Haaretz that all four were arrested within a few days after the kidnapping. He says one was released, one is still being questioned and the other two are being held in administrative detention.
Marwan Qawasmeh and Abu Aisheh are familiar figures in the militant wing of Hamas, and have done time in both Israeli and Palestinian prisons.
The three teens were kidnapped exactly 14 days ago from a hitchhiking station near the West Bank settlement of Gush Etzion. A massive operation was launched in the Hebron area following the abduction, and Israeli politicians and security sources have said from the beginning that they believed Hamas was behind the kidnapping.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu-Zawahari called publication of the suspects' names proof that Israel is looking for excuses to attack the Islamist movement, and that it has failed in its goal of waging war against it.
Qawasmeh and Abu Aisha are known figures within Hamas' militant wing, and have been imprisoned both by the Palestinian Authority and Israel in the past.
Qawasmeh, 29, served his first 10-month sentence at the age of 18 and has since been arrested four more times, including administrative detention. He confessed during prior interrogation by the Shin Bet to belonging to the military wing of Hamas and to taking part in various military exercises in the Hebron area. He was last released from prison in March 2012.
Abu Aisheh, 32, was arrested for the first time in 2005 and sat in administrative detention for about half a year. He was subsequently arrested in 2007. His father has also sat in Israeli prison, and his brother was killed in 2005 when he tried to hurl an explosive at Israeli soldiers.
About 410 Palestinians have been arrested in the West Bank since the abduction. Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshal said earlier this week that his movement had no information about the three kidnapped teens. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Meshal termed the teenagers as soldiers and said he could neither confirm nor deny Hamas' involvement in the abduction.
"If it is proven that this was an abduction that was carried out by Palestinians, then I praise them," he said. "This is a moral duty, to see the release of prisoners from Israeli prisons, and to force the occupying regime to pay the price of occupation."
Following publication of the names, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to break off the unity deal with Hamas.
"A short time after the kidnapping I said that those who perpetrated the kidnapping were terrorists of Hamas," Netanyahu said, in an address at the Israel Air Force's graduation ceremony.. "And indeed today the security services of Israel have published the names of two of the perpetrators of this heinous crime. I now expect President Abbas, who said important things in Saudi Arabia, to stand by those words and break his pact with the Hamas terrorist organization that kidnaps children and calls for the destruction of Israel."