Analysis

With Arrest of Former Palestinian Lawmaker, Israel Blurs Line Between Political, Military Activity

Shin Bet announcement that it had solved a deadly attack does not explain the alleged involvement of PFLP leader, as mass arrests leave unanswered questions

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Khalida Jarrar attends a court session at an Israeli military base, May 21, 2015.
Khalida Jarrar attends a court session at an Israeli military base, May 21, 2015.Credit: AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, File
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The Shin Bet’s announcement on Wednesday of having solved the August murder of Rena Shnerb near Ramallah has touched off a stormy debate about one of the suspects under arrest.

The suspect, 56-year-old Khailda Jarrar, is one of the heads of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine organization and a former member of the Palestinian parliament. She has been jailed under administrative detention for extended periods, and has accused Israel of persecuting her for political activity against the occupation.

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In the wake of the killing, the group suspected of involvement was arrested along with 50 of the organization’s members. A Shin Bet statement said, for the first time, that Jarrar heads the PFLP and is responsible for all the organization’s activities, including attacks. Many journalists in Israel saw this as proof that Jarrar was involved in terrorism.

In effect, the Shin Bet is saying it hopes this time it can translate the evidence into an indictment against Jarrar that would be filed with the military court in the West Bank (As the administrative detentions were based on suspicions stemming from intelligence that the Shin Bet wanted to keep secret and that has therefore never been subjected to public scrutiny in a court.)

But the Shin Bet’s statement doesn’t say what exactly Jarrar may have known about members' terrorist activities and how she may have been involved in decisions about attacks. It seems we need to wait for the evidence, if it is presented in court, before reaching any clear conclusions. More than once we have seen a not-insignificant gap between the announcement issued to the press and the details that later appear in the indictment.

The blurred boundaries between PFLP's the military and political wings are nothing new. In August 2001, almost a year into the second intifada, Israel assassinated the PFLP's secretary-general in the West Bank, Abu Ali Mustafa. He was 63, and Palestinians said he wasn’t involved at all in terrorism. But intelligence provided by the Shin Bet to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, about Mustafa having approved the use of booby-trapped vehicles while reviewing a target bank prepared by the PFLP, was enough to determine his fate. A month and a half later, the organization responded by assassinating cabinet minister Rehavam Ze’evi at a Jerusalem hotel.

The man who ordered the revenge attack, Mustafa Ahmed Sadat, had been wanted by Israel for more than four years. In 2006, Israeli troops broke into a prison in Jericho where Sadat was being held by the Palestinian Authority and monitored by European jailers. Israel refused to release Sadat as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange deal five years later despite Hamas’s demands. Pistols with silencers were among the weapons seized from the PFLP recently. It wouldn’t be a big surprise were it to turn out that the group’s members were interested in the possibility of perpetrating a kidnapping to obtain a bargaining chip.

Authorities believe the suspects in the case murdered Shnerb and wounded her relatives by planting an explosive at the Ein Bubin natural spring west of Ramallah, as well attempting shooting attacks that caused no casualties. The military conducts security checks at the area ahead of visits by Israeli tourists. This time, the tourists preceded the soldiers.

The perpetrators had scouted out the spring from a distance of more than 100 meters and could have easily seen that they’d be hurting civilians, not soldiers. It was cold-blooded murder. The Shin Bet believes the ring also filmed the attack but erased the footage, which hasn’t been found.

Palestinians participate in a rally marking the anniversary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), in Gaza City, Dec. 7, 2019.
Palestinians participate in a rally marking the anniversary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), in Gaza City, Dec. 7, 2019. Credit: AP Photo/Hatem Moussa

The person who put together and detonated the bomb, Samer Arbid, has previously been interrogated by the Shin Bet interrogation and released for lack of evidence. After the attack he was arrested again and questioned using violent methods. He collapsed during his interrogation and was hospitalized in critical condition, but has since recovered. He will be tried along with the other suspects.

The mass arrest of PFLP members and the relatively large amount of weapons found raise the question of how the organization operated unhindered for a long time without raising the suspicions of the Shin Bet or the military. The group is known to be a severe ideological organization that takes strict care to keep information compartmentalized. Many senior members have been in administrative detention. Others have mentored younger terrorists, their faces covered to hide their identities.

It may turn out that the security establishment's delay in detecting this cell, only doing so after the deadly attack, is indirectly related to the focus in recent years on the proliferation of lone-wolf attacks, young terrorists operating on their own, where the only early warning signs appear on social media. The PFLP's infrastructure is very different from the newer, widespread type of terrorism in the West Bank. The Shin Bet says that terrorism by organized groups is still a top priority and that the struggle against Hamas and the PFLP will continue – and that there are details yet to be revealed about the Shnerb case.

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