The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) revealed on Thursday the identity of the two chief suspects wanted for involvement in the kidnapping of three Israeli youths earlier this month.
Both Marwan Kawasme and Amar Abu Aysha are from Hebron and longstanding Hamas members. The Shin Bet added that both were wanted as soon as security forces learned of the kidnapping.
“Since then, the Shin Bet and IDF have been carrying out a wide-scale search aimed at capturing the wanted suspects,” the security agency stated. “The first aim is to track down the location of the abducted youths.”
Eyal Yifrah, 19, and Naftali Fraenkel and Gil-Ad Shaer, both 16, went missing on the night of June 12 while hitchhiking outside a settlement in Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem.
During a speech at a graduation ceremony for new air force pilots, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu related to the naming of the two suspects, saying he now expected Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – whom he again pointedly praised for strongly condemning the kidnappings – to dissolve his recent pact with Hamas.
Kawasme, 29, was arrested in the past for Hamas-related activity. At 18 he was sentenced to 10 months in prison.
After his release he was arrested another four times, and on some of those occasions placed under administrative detention. When questioned in 2010, he confessed to having been recruited to Hamas’s military wing in Hebron the year before, taking part in military training in caves in the area, and obtaining raw materials for the assembly of bombs. He also took part in the recruitment of other Palestinian youths to Hamas.
Abu Aysha, 32, was first arrested in November 2005 and placed in administrative custody until June 2006. He was rearrested for a short time in April 2007. His brother was killed in November 2005 while trying to hurl an explosive device at soldiers.
Security forces, including the police’s elite YAMAM counter-terrorism unit, arrested several suspects in recent days on suspicion of being involved in the kidnapping.
A senior security source told The Jerusalem Post that the Shin Bet confirmed the identity of the two suspects within 24 hours of the kidnapping.
He stressed the fact that both were in administrative detention in the past. The additional suspects who have been arrested by security forces are part of the Hamas infrastructure in Hebron, and are suspected of playing a role in the kidnapping, the source said.
Ahmed Kawasme, a relative of one of the suspects and a member of a large West Bank family estimated to number 10,000 people, said the clan represented all lines of political thought.
“I personally am against such acts because our political leaders have chosen the path of peace with Israel,” he told Maariv-Sof Hashavua, a sister publication of The Jerusalem Post.
“We all must adhere to the way of peace that our leaders chose,” Kawasme said. “Most family members concur with my view, but there are those who think differently.”
The end point of Operation Brother’s Keeper, launched by the IDF two weeks ago in an effort to retrieve the three Israelis and arrest their kidnappers, is clear. But when that point will be reached continues to be an unknown, a senior officer in the Paratroopers Brigade told the Post on Thursday.
Maj. Ran Friedman, deputy commander of the brigade’s 101st Battalion, said his men had been carrying out searches for the missing youths in the Judea region, Gush Etzion and around Hebron in recent days.
“We’ve been searching villages at night, and turning over every stone to find them. On the way, we’ve found additional things,” Friedman said, adding that soldiers from the 101st Battalion arrested several Hamas member this week and recovered a firearm and ammunition.
“I don’t know if this will contribute to the general [intelligence] picture,” he said, “but we want to contribute anything we can to the mission.”
The paratroopers have encountered minor resistance along the way because we come with large forces and arrive covertly at a village at night,” Friedman said.
“When we do encounter resistance we know how to keep it within reasonable proportions and not get involved in a complex incident,” he continued.
“This involves non-lethal riot-dispersal techniques when needed, and an intelligent use of force. We don’t escalate where we don’t have to, and we are aggressive where we have to be.”
Friedman said his soldiers were ready for the scenario of finding the hiding spot where the youths are being held.
“I hope this privilege falls into our hands,” he said. “We have drilled for this possibility. We are ready for all scenarios, and we are able to deal with them in the most professional manner.”
The 101st is one of four paratrooper battalions operating in the West Bank, with the entire brigade having been deployed.
“This is a brigade-wide operation. That hasn’t happened in a while,” Friedman said.
The deputy battalion commander recalled how his forces trained two weeks ago, returned to their homes for weekend leave and then were quickly mobilized to the West Bank after the kidnappings.
“Since then it’s been non-stop for two weeks. We will continue to do whatever is necessary until the mission’s goal is completed,” he vowed.
“I don’t remember a period when the soldiers were so highly motivated and wanted to take part in missions so much,” he continued. “They insist on being involved in missions even when told that they can’t take part. Hardly anyone has gone home in the past two weeks.”
Despite the uncertainty about how long the operation might drag on, Friedman said he and other paratrooper commanders were experienced in open-ended missions.
“In Operation Cast Lead [in 2009] and the Second Lebanon War [in 2006], we knew how to enter, but it wasn’t clear when we would exit,” he explained. “As paratroopers we hold long exercises simulating the fog of battle and ambiguity. From our perspective, we are ready for the long-term.”
Meanwhile, security forces arrested 10 Palestinian suspects overnight between Wednesday and Thursday in the West Bank.
During one raid in the village of Samua in the southern Mount Hebron region, a Hamas member who attempted to flee while ignoring calls to halt by the elite unit that had come to arrest him was shot and seriously wounded. He was taken by the army to hospital.
One of the suspects, arrested in Bethlehem, is a member of Hamas’s military wing and was involved in a recent drive-by shooting on an IDF position near the city, the army said, adding that he was also involved in an attempt to run over soldiers in recent days. During searches of his home, troops recovered a handgun and ammunition.
Soldiers encountered some disturbances during the raids in villages such as Beit Umar, near Hebron.
Security forces also conducted searches of 133 sites in the West Bank overnight, a senior security source said.
Meanwhile, a Palestinian who was seriously wounded during clashes last week with the IDF in Kalandia, north of Jerusalem, has died of his wounds. A total of five Palestinians have been killed in clashes with the army since the start of the operation to retrieve the three abducted Israeli youths.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.