How an Islamic Jihad Mastermind Ambushed His Israeli Nemesis, and How His Death Was Avenged

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Dror Weinberg, the most senior officer to be killed during the Second Intifada.
Dror Weinberg, the most senior officer to be killed during the Second Intifada.Credit: Family album
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

The first report was that Colonel Dror Weinberg was wounded. It was a Friday night, November 15, 2002. Arik “Harris” Brabbing was at home with his family in Modi’in. On the phone was R., the Hebron district coordinator for the Shin Bet security service. “R. said, ‘There was gunfire in Kiryat Arba. Dror isn’t picking up. I think he was hurt.”

At the time, Brabbing was the deputy leader of the Shin Bet operational unit, with about 50 case officers under his command. “Case officer” – racaz in Hebrew – is the euphemism used for Shin Bet intelligence gathering officers whose job is to locate, recruit, run and arrest members of terrorist organizations. Brabbing’s authority extended over about half of the West Bank, from Ramallah southward.

“I told R. to alert everybody, all the case officers and security guards, and prepare the armored vehicles,” Brabbing describes. He himself got into his car, turned on the flashing light and headed for the Shin Bet’s district headquarters for Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. There he switched to an armored jeep containing armored vests and helmets. Armed with their personal pistols, he and several colleagues sped toward Hebron. En route they received updates over pagers tuned to the IDF frequency. There was an infiltration. Terrorists infiltrated a home in Hebron and people were killed. “And the whole time I’m hearing over the radio: Dror doesn’t answer. Dror doesn’t answer. Then somebody reports that Dror is wounded. And a few minutes later: Dror is seriously wounded.”

At about quarter to eight, while they were still driving, “we got the bad news.” Dror Weinberg had died of his injuries at a clinic in Kiryat Arba, in the incident that came to be known as the “terror attack on the worshipers’ route” – a dirt path several hundred meters long leading from a narrow gate in the Kiryat Arba fence to the Cave of the Patriarchs. All told 12 soldiers and civilians were shot dead by three terrorists, who died in the ensuing fierce fight.

During his service in the IDF Engineering Corps, which he left with the rank of captain, and after 27 years in the Shin Bet, Brabbing has smelled death many times. He has seen dozens of bodies: comrades who fell in battle, civilians murdered in terror attacks, and terrorists who killed and were killed. Over the years, some of the memories have faded. Many names and faces have been forgotten. But the image of Colonel Dror Weinberg remains sharp.

Dror Weinberg visiting his brother Shai.Credit: Family album

“He was just bursting with energy and charisma,” Brabbing says, recalling their first meeting. It was at the start of the second intifada, in late 2000. “Dror was a battalion commander in the Judea Brigade and was sitting in a huge military tent with maps of the city of Hebron and the surrounding villages. He was wearing a big round yarmulke and drank tea with six sugars. Dror always drank tea with a ton of sugar. He had a baby face and when he felt embarrassed he couldn’t hide the blush in his cheeks.”

Brabbing joined the Shin Bet at the bottom of the ladder, as a junior case officer. He had to choose a monicker to use in meetings with Palestinian sources (agents and informers) whom he recruited. He chose “Harris.”

“The purpose of the meeting with Dror was to make contact and coordinate expectations. How we from the Shin Bet and he from the army could work together. The scene in Hebron was rocky. Israeli civilians and soldiers driving along the roads were getting fired upon. We were constantly getting intel about plans by terrorist groups to fire on Kiryat Arba and the nearby communities,” Brabbing says.

‘A sense of losing control’

Dror Weinberg was born in 1964 in Kfar Sava to Uriel and Batsheva. The family were religious Zionists. In 1983, inspired by his older brother Yishai, who served in a top intelligence unit, Dror volunteered for the Sayeret Matkal elite commando unit. After combat training, he took part in various missions, including to rescue the hostages in the Bus 300 hijacking. He completed the infantry officers’ course with distinction and in 1987, he switched to the Paratroopers and fought in Lebanon and the territories. Later he attended IDF’s Command and Staff College, and studied political science and Middle East Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 1999, he was promoted to colonel and appointed commander of the Judea Brigade. The brigade headquarters was in Hebron, overlooking the city and its surroundings. A year later, the second intifada began.

Brabbing remembers how Dror would tease him: "You guys in the Shin Bet aren’t getting the job done." It was said with a smile but there was a kernel of truth to it. “There was a sense of losing control,” Brabbing admits. “But Dror never gave up, even when we didn’t succeed. We took part in dozens of missions to catch suspects. His devotion to the mission always stood out. When the terrorists we were after got away, the first thing Dror did, and it could have been at three or four in the morning, was to give encouragement to the soldiers and other officers. He praised when due but he did not cavil at biting criticism when necessary.”

The Shin Bet soon found out that one of the key figures in Hebron was Mohammed Sidar. Sidar, 26, came from an affluent and religious family of merchants. In high school, he had became more and more religious. His religious passion intensified at the Islamic University in Hebron. There he joined al-Jam’a al-Islamiya, the “Islamic Group,” aka the Palestinian student cell of Islamic Jihad.

The Islamic Group was headed by Ramadan Shalah, a Palestinian professor from Florida. Shalah took over after the group’s founder, Dr. Fathi Shiqaqi, was assassinated in Malta in 1995, reportedly by the Mossad. Shalah operated out of his Damascus headquarters, with other commanders from the Islamic Jihad military wing. These commanders would send orders to commit terror attacks in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel.

Sidar was chosen to head the student cell at the university because of his serenity and charisma. While studying chemistry, in which he excelled, he organized protests and secretly arranged for money transfers to his fellow activists. He was arrested several times by the Shin Bet, but only for short periods of time.

After graduation, Sidar went underground and assumed the the nom de guerre “Muhand”. Before long, he had set up terrorist cells that planned, under his direction, to commit suicide bombings and gunfire attacks on the roads. Each cell consisted of four or five members. Sidar maintained strict compartmentalization: the various cells didn’t know about each other or the other cells’ plans.

Mohammed Sidar.

Sidar trained his men using manuals that were based on the experience of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons. The training included the basics of covert operations, how to make brief calls from public phone booths, surveillance, how to shake off a tail, preparing hideouts, meetings in public places like shops and gas stations, or in caves in southern Mount Hebron. When planning a terror attack, he sent his comrades to gather information while he handled buying weapons, ammunition and explosives. One of his novelties was to buy highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide from pharmacies for suicide bombers to use in explosive belts.

Sidar was unusual in that he never married, in order to devote himself to the struggle against the Israeli occupation. Being very devout, unlike many Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists, he completely abstained from women and alcohol.

The mission of getting close to a stringently cautious underground activist like Sidar, let alone infiltrating the cells he commands, was harder than usual. Yet, glacially but patiently, based on intelligence from agents and informers and from eavesdropping on the odd brief phone conversations, the Shin Bet came to realize that Sidar played a key role in the Islamic Jihad’s military wing.

This observation was reinforced when the Shin Bet obtained verified information that “Muhand” and another man had shot a local Jewish settler to death at Givat Harsina in Kiryat Arba.

Following the attack at Givat Harsina, the Shin Bet put Sidar on its wanted list, referred to as “Bingo,” which shows the name and picture of each suspect and is distributed to all the IDF commanders in the area. This was how Dror Weinberg first heard the name Mohammed Sidar.

‘Know your enemy’

“Dror was very interested in him,” says Brabbing. “He wanted to really understand the profile of the other side. To get to know him in the sense of ‘know your enemy.’ I never heard him disdain Sidar or other terrorists. His approach was that of a professional army officer. He didn’t let feelings or political influence stand in the way.”

Thus, Sidar gradually became an important figure in the life of Brigade Commander Weinberg. Almost like his shadow, pursuing him and keeping him up at night. They moved like two parallel lines, that Dror aspired would cross at some point.

“Dror couldn’t hide his frustration. He would always say to me, this Sidar is always one step ahead of us. But he also always said: Only you [the Shin Bet], not the army, will be able to get to him and thwart his plans.”

The hunt for Sidar intensified. Reports of his whereabouts multiplied. Once a source reported that Sidar was spotted walking around a neighborhood in Hebron (with an informant). The Shin Bet’s covert operation unit went into action.

Eric Barbing. 'He was just bursting with energy and charisma.' Credit: Emil Salman

In December 2001, after several days of surveillance, the Shin Bet headquarters received approval to carry out a targeted assassination operation against a car: Sidar was supposed to be in the back seat and his driver in the front. A combat helicopter took off after the car was identified and when the car reached an intersection, R., the Shin Bet commander, gave the “go” order and the helicopter fired a missile. The missile missed Sidar’s car and struck an adjacent car that held a family with children. Two of the children were killed on the spot.

“There was a deathly silence in the command room when you realize you missed the target and that you hurt innocent bystanders, and children yet. You’re beside yourself with sorrow and disappointment,” Brabbing says. “There’s this image of us that we don’t care, as if the terrorists just look like little non-human figures on our cameras and it’s like some computer game. That’s not true in the slightest. We care deeply. When we fail and harm innocents and the suspect is still roaming free, it’s an awful feeling.”

During Dror’s command of the brigade in Hebron, he and the Shin Bet propounded a combat doctrine of “defense beyond the fence,” designed to prevent terrorists from entering Jewish homes in the city and from infiltrating settlements in the area. The goal was to draw the terrorists out into open areas where it was easier to spot them and engage them in battle than in the crowded city streets.

An important part of the doctrine was the “peacocks” method that was used in Lebanon – a group of three soldiers openly moves along the streets, attracting attention, with the idea of preventing harm to civilians if fighting erupts.

“The terror attacks in the communities are getting more serious from day to day and every effort has to be made to prevent civilians from harm,” Dror stressed in his briefings. “The army’s job is to protect them.”

On November 15, 2002, one of these three-man teams was making its way along the “worshipers’ route”. Three terrorists waiting in ambush on the side of the route opened fire on the soldiers from behind, killing them. The terrorists then retreated into a house in the narrow alleyway. Hearing the gunfire, Dror, who had stayed stayed on shift at the Brigade headquarters over Shabbat, jumped into his jeep and sped to the scene with his driver and radioman.

He got there within two or three minutes. The terrorists hiding in the house shot him dead.

Other forces were called to the scene. Everyone who tried to enter the alley was shot. It was precisely the type of scenario that Dror had sought to prevent.

After the attack in Hebron, the Shin Bet learned that Sidar was in contact with the command center in Damascus. Sidar reported on the highly successful operation, gave the names of the terrorist “martyrs” who had died and asked the organization to claim credit for the mission, so no other organization could “steal” their thunder.

The Shin Bet launched a secret operation to capture Sidar dead or alive and intensified its efforts to collect human and technological intelligence on him and his activities. Gradually, the noose tightened. Reports arrived about relatives of his, including his mother, visiting various apartments and delivering food. The Shin Bet gradually homed in on two apartments. A man was seen leaving one of them, walking in zigzags as if to check whether he was being followed. The unit went into action, installing surveillance equipment and cameras, and Sidar was spotted.

Dror Weinberg, right, with Gadi Shamni.Credit: Family album

The planning stepped up a notch, and obtained “golden information” that Sidar had gone to a drugstore on multiple occasions, albeit taking precautionary measures, such as walking in circles to get there, or riding in taxis.

When everything was ready for the mission, the camera of the drone, kept aloft surveilling the area, malfunctioned and contact with it was lost. It took two weeks until the contact was restored, at which time Sidar was spotted at the drugstore again. Shin Bet surveillance confirmed the identification. He left the pharmacy at eight in the evening and walked to what looked like a warehouse. Opening the door with a key, he went in. The building later turned out to be a carpentry shop.

Because the evening was cloudy, a helicopter couldn’t be used, and reinforcements from the Shin Bet and Yamam (the Border Police counterterrorism unit) were summoned to the location. Over a loudspeaker, Sidar was ordered to come out and surrender. He did not answer in words - but opened fire from inside the building. A dog was sent inside and Sidar shot it. The forces responded by firing anti-tank missiles. Shortly after that, the forces burst in and found Sidar’s body, with a Galil rifle by his side.

Four members of one family are buried in the military cemetery in Kfar Sava: Shimon and Shimshon Koenigsbach, brothers of Dror’s mother Batsheva Weinberg, both fell in the Six-Day war. Two years after Dror was killed, his brother Shai died of illness. Although he hadn’t died in uniform, Batsheva requested that her eldest son be buried alongside his younger brother. The defense minister at the time, Moshe Ya’alon, gave special permission for her request to be honored.

This year, like so many other bereaved relatives, Batsheva will be unable to visit the graves of her loved ones because of the corona pandemic. “I’ve been going to the cemetery on Yom Hazikaron for the last 53 years since my brothers, the uncles of Dror and Shai, died. But I don’t need Yom Hazikaron in order to remember. I remember them all every day, and I am a law-abiding citizen,” Batsheva says.

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