When Shin Bet security service officials spoke yesterday about Hamas’ largest mobilization to date in the Ramallah area, they had trouble concealing their astonishment. Twenty-two operatives apparently connected to this Hamas cell were arrested last week.
True, the Shin Bet men indicated, in recent years there have been terror cells more lethal than this Ramallah group, which shot dead 10 Israelis in two years. However, said security officials, apparently few terror cells could compete with the high level of planning, operational performance, sophistication and intelligence work displayed by the Ramallah Hamas group before its members were arrested.
If the confessions of some of the detained Hamas men are to be believed, the Shin Bet uncovered the Ramallah cell just in time. Shortly before its members were captured, they hatched a plot for a particularly gruesome attack: to kill members of an Israel Defense Forces patrol and cart away their bodies as bargaining chips. Concerned that the get-away car wouldn’t have enough space for all the corpses, the Hamas men intended to decapitate some of the bodies.
The Hamas men who devised this plan hoped that it would be a sequel to the successful ambush in which three IDF men were killed in the village of Ein Yabrud, north of Ramallah.
For more than six months, Hamas’ military wing in Ramallah has been the driving force behind the organization in the West Bank. IDF anti-terror strikes against Hamas cells in the Hebron and Nablus regions left the Ramallah operatives, headed by Sheikh Ibrahim Hamad, in the lead position.
Hamad, 40, a native of the Ramallah area, is one of the shrewdest terror suspects in the West Bank, say Israeli security officials. Among other accusations, they say Hamas dispatched the suicide terrorists to Jerusalem’s Moment and Hillel cafes, and to the attack on a night-club in Rishon Letzion. The IDF and Shin Bet pursued Hamad for years, to no avail.
The attempt to track down Hamad reached a peak on December 1, when members of an elite army unit raided sites in Ramallah, arresting dozens of his subordinates in one night. During gunfire clashes precipitated by this raid, three top Hamas operatives were killed; and for 24 hours, the IDF believed that Hamad’s body was among the rubble of a demolished building. After the operation, however, the IDF established that a large-framed man who was spotted in the building prior to its demolition was not Hamad.
Last week’s capture of the Hamas cell produced new information about the scope of the organization’s activities in the Ramallah area. Hamad’s efforts, Israeli officials have learned, have not been limited to the handling of suicide bombers. He has “on the side” directed shooting attacks on Jewish settlers and also soldiers around Ramallah.
Shin Bet men yesterday admitted that relief and satisfaction produced by the uncovering of the large Ramallah cell has been tempered by knowledge that the security service’s past efforts were misdirected. In many instances, Israeli security officials wrongly attributed attacks launched by the Hamas group to Fatah-affiliated Tanzim operatives. “We invested a lot of energy chasing the wrong leads,” said one security official. “We made mistakes, and these will have to be investigated thoroughly.”
Some of the Hamas men detained last week told interrogators that they never met Hamad personally. During their few meetings with top Hamas officials in Ramallah, they said, their handlers wore masks. Hamas went to extreme lengths to compartmentalize its work: Field operatives who took part in shooting attacks didn’t use their real names with one another.
Interrogation of the Hamas detainees has revealed information about the ambush at Ein Yabrud, in which the three IDF soldiers were slain. Hamas, it turns out, closely monitored IDF operations in the Ramallah area for weeks. They identified a weak spot: army patrols would wander deeply into the Ein Yabrud village, relatively far from other IDF comrades. Hamas meticulously planned the ambush. A five-man squad opened fire on the soldiers from short range; three other Hamas operatives stood watch, to warn about the possible arrival of IDF reinforcements. Still other Hamas men were on hand to drive a get-away car; and some had the assignment of hauling the weapons of those killed to a hiding place. At the end of the attack, the Hamas men concluded that it had gone according to plan but they realized, they could take away the corpses and use them in negotiations to free Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
This analysis led to the cell’s next plan. One of the operatives, Majdi Na’asan, operates a dump truck for a living. In the past, his vehicle was used to smuggle weapons, on the plausible assumption that the stench would deter IDF soldiers from searching for contraband in its layers of garbage