Cops Nab J'lem Hills Cell Behind 12 Years of Violent Crime

The suspects are believed to have killed Neta Blatt-Sorek, 53,whose body was found a year ago near the Beit Jamal Monastery, and Kristine Luken, an American tourist, murdered five weeks ago in a forested area near Jerusalem.

Jerusalem District Police and the Shin Bet security service yesterday unveiled a Palestinian gang from the area of Judea that is believed to be responsible for two murders in the Beit Shemesh area and at least 19 other serious felonies since 1997.

Kristine Luken murder
Michal Fattal

The suspects are believed to have killed Neta Blatt-Sorek, 53, a resident of Zichron Ya'akov, whose body was found a year ago near the Beit Jamal Monastery, and Kristine Luken, an American tourist, murdered five weeks ago in a forested area near Jerusalem.

Police suspect the gang is also responsible for two murder attempts, one rape, one attempted rape, seven robberies, seven break-ins and criminal entry into homes and one instance of shooting at an army jeep.

Jerusalem Police Commander Aharon Franco said that the gang began as a crew of criminals, and turned into a gang driven by nationalist motives following the assassination of Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, in January 2010.

Charges were brought against three of the gang's members, Kifah Ghanimat, Ibrahim Ghanimat and Iyad Fatata, at the Jerusalem District Court yesterday.

The arrest of the three was the result of intensive efforts by the Shin Bet and the police, with the help of DNA samples, following the fatal stabbing of Luken on December 18, 2010. Luken's friend, Kaye Wilson, was seriously hurt in the attack and survived only because her assailants thought she was dead.

Wilson managed to make her way from the attack scene and get help. Information she gave police led the Shin Bet to conclude that the attack had nationalist motives, which quickly focused the investigation on a gang of criminals living in villages in the Hebron area.

On December 21, police arrested Kifah Ghanimat, a resident of the village of Tzurif, and Iyad Fatata, a resident of Tarkumiye, in a combined operation with the army and the Shin Bet. The three suspects were known to the security forces, as more than one had served jail sentences in the past.

The two confessed to the killing and reenacted the incident.

Crucial evidence in the case is that the blood of one of the suspects was found on the shoe laces of the stabbed women, which was used to tie them up. He had been injured when Wilson managed to use a pocket knife to strike at her attackers.

The Shin Bet and police investigators praised Wilson for her detailed and precise testimony, as well as her cool, which helped her to survive. The attackers repeatedly stabbed her to confirm their kill. She pretended to be dead and then walked barefoot to call for help.

"During the night, between operations, she met with investigators and gave us very precise details about what happened during the encounter with the assailants. It made it easier for us to locate her dead friend and to solve the case," said Franco during a press conference yesterday.

Wilson also told police that the suspects smoked during the attack, which led investigators to find more DNA samples.

Investigators say the gang made a living stealing in the area of Beit Shemesh, and then made their way back to their villages through a huge gap in the separation fence south of Jerusalem.

"These people are not members in any known terrorist organization. They were mostly involved in criminal acts but it was clear to them that they also wanted to murder Jews and they did that premeditatedly and not to rob their victims," said a senior Shin Bet investigator.

During the questioning of the suspects, the suspicion arose that they had also killed Neta Blatt-Sorek, and a DNA match was made with the scene of her murder.

In early 2010, the suspects are also believed to have had stabbed and seriously injured a couple who were hiking near Beit Shemesh.

Kifah Ghanimat also carried out several shooting attacks near Gush Etzion.

In his interrogation, Ghanimat said that the attacks were meant to be a response to the assassination of senior Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, a year ago. However, authorities have found no links between the gang and Hamas.

The capture of the terror gang from Tzurif and Tarkumiye also resolved the death of Neta Blatt-Sorek. She was reported missing, and then her body was found two days later, on February 26, 2010 near the Beit Jamal Monastery. She had stab wounds in the chest area, but the police suspected suicide instead of murder on the basis of pathology reports. However, some forensic pathologists maintained that she had been murdered. Police said the crime scene had been washed by heavy rains, which interfered with their investigation.

The family of Blatt-Sorek maintained from the start that she had been murdered.

Franco said that he had concluded that murder was the most likely option, and that is why he ordered the creation of a task force to investigate the case, which remained open until the capture of the gang.