The breakthrough in the investigation of the Itamar murders marks a significant achievement for the Israeli security forces, especially the Shin Bet. The fact that the two suspects have been located and detained means they can be put to trial, which will hopefully restore deterrence in the West Bank and reduce the risk of any Israelis carrying out revenge attacks.
The Shin Bet security service briefed the press yesterday morning, and soon after asked the court to lift the gag order that had been imposed on the investigation. But they were far too late.
Ever since the first suspect was arrested on April 5, and certainly since the two suspects were brought to the settlement of Itamar on April 14 for a reenactment of the crime, many of the key developments in the probe have been covered online, as well as in Palestinian and foreign media outlets. Meanwhile the Shin Bet and the courts keep pretending, and the Israeli citizens are once again the last to know how the investigation has progressed.
This particular investigation, into the murder last month of five members of the Fogel family, underlines an inherent difficulty faced by the intelligence community in tracking down individuals not operating as part of a known organization. In this case, neither of the suspects from the village of Awarta - Amjad Awad, 19, and Hakim Awad, 18 - have prior records of carrying out terrorism or security related offenses.
Despite the intelligence coverage of the West Bank, reinforced in recent years through tight cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, there is an evident flaw in the system. A number of terror attacks in East Jerusalem in recent years were also carried out by young people unaffiliated with any organizations, proving that such assailants can operate under the radar of the authorities for quite a while.
The Itamar investigation found that the two young suspects had tried to obtain a firearm three days before the attack. The attempt failed, but their meeting with a third Palestinian, another resident of Awarta, went unnoticed by Israel. After the attack on the Fogels, no less than five Palestinians - four of them related to the suspects - are believed to have helped hide the murderers and cover up their crime: Burning their clothes, moving the weapons to a Ramallah hideout, and so on.
The suspects were not caught thanks to a hot tip, but as a result of a prolonged search that included dozens of arrests. The two were tracked down based on circumstantial evidence, which was reinforced by their admissions. According to a New York Times report, DNA samples were taken from hundreds of residents of the village during the investigation.
The Shin Bet officers stressed to the reporters yesterday just how calculated the crime had been. Although not acting on behalf of an organized terror cell, the two suspects had every intention to murder Jews. This analysis is based particularly on the confession of the elder suspect, Amjad Awad, who stated they went to Itamar to carry out an "act of sacrifice" ("istishhad," in Arabic ), aimed at killing Israelis, and that he hoped to die a martyr's death.
The minor, Hakim Awad, made a different claim. His confession appears to indicate that he regarded the incident as a burglary and the theft of weapons. But when they thought they had been caught, the break-in turned into murder.
The difference between the two versions may not be that significant. They obviously had planned to infiltrate the settlement. The suspects may well have continued along step by step, surprised by their success in escaping the settlement's security. Many unorganized terror attacks often straddle the fence between being criminal and nationalistic, but either way this was a case of premeditated murder.
What's horrifying is that neither of the two teenagers voiced any regret. They were operating with a sense of general justification for the murder of Jews, including the cold-blooded slaughter of a 3-month-old baby.
We have heard much about the security improvements made in the West Bank in recent years. But this case proves that there are still those highly motivated to carry out terrorist attacks, even among Palestinians whose daily lives have significantly improved in recent years following a reduction in checkpoints and raids. This is a significant threat, one which becomes even clearer ahead of a possible escalation in tension between the sides as September, the month in which the Palestinians intend to declare independence, draws near.
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