Two o’clock Monday morning. Several IDF jeeps make their way through the winding, narrow streets of the Palestinian village of Azun, in the northern West Bank, near Kalkilya.
Long before the the jeeps rolled through, ground units have already set off toward the village. A large nighttime operation to arrest terror suspects has begun.
The Jerusalem Post joins Maj. Aryeh Schory, commander of the Kfir Brigade’s Lavi (“Lion”) Battalion, in his jeep, where radios crackle with reports from three different units reporting their positions and Schory transmits orders back to them.
In the jeep, a screen strapped to the wrist of F.-Sgt. Daniel Hadad, a radio operator, receives images from advanced surveillance equipment. Units enter homes and gardens to search for suspects, while other soldiers guard them against potential attackers.
This moment represents the peak of weeks of intelligence- gathering and days of planning.
The village of Azun has long stood out on the IDF’s radar as a hotbed of security threats, due to the frequent Molotov cocktail attacks, rock throwing, and more ominously, two shooting attacks on Israeli vehicles in the northern West Bank area this year, the most recent of which occurred on September 30. (No one was injured but a car was damaged by bullets.)
The first attack involved an improvised firearm, while a proper gun was used to fire on Israeli traffic in the second. The night before, two suspects, later named as Muhammed Katash, 23, and Muhammad Sawidan, 20, of Azun, were arrested, and later confessed to carrying out the September 30 shooting attack, security forces said. They will be charged at a military court.
The village was used as a staging ground for Fedayeen attacks when it was under Jordanian control prior to 1967.
“There’s a history here of more than 40 years of violent disorder,” Schory says before the raid. “We’ll be joined by officers from the IDF’s civil administration who will speak to villagers and ensure that humanitarian conditions are maintained,” he adds. “It’s rare to make this many arrests in one night.”
Security forces put together a list of who they considered to be the most dangerous and high-profile individuals involved in the recent attacks. The information was then sent to the Kfir Brigade’s operations officer, Maj. Liron Appelman. “I map out the village and plan the raid by assigning the different companies to the addresses of suspects,” Appelman says.
Nocturnal security raids are a near-nightly feature in the West Bank, but tonight’s raid will be larger than the others.
“Azun is a sensitive village. Not a day goes by without rocks, Molotov cocktails and, now, gun attacks,” Appelman adds. Some of the villagers have built improvised firearms.”
“The aim is to get into the village on foot, late at night and quietly,” he says. “Although residents in the Ephraim area are not necessarily aware of it, IDF forces operate here day and night, in methods seen and unseen, to primarily ensure their safety proactively, relying on intelligence-backed counter-terrorism and effective routine security operations,” a senior security source adds.
Before the raid, soldiers relax near their quarters while listening to a friend play the guitar and joking with one another. As the time approaches for them to head to the village, the mood changes and tension mounts. The soldiers gear up with ceramic bullet-proof vests, helmets and communications equipment.
They then head out toward Azun. Our jeep races toward the village. Soon enough, empty, narrow streets and Arabic storefronts can be seen through the bulletproof windows, as can Arabic graffiti, Palestinian flags and ubiquitous wall murals of what appears to be the Aksa Mosque.
“Pull over here,” Schory orders his driver, and the jeep comes to a stop outside a carpentry shop. Two young men lie on a sofa outdoors near a fire. “Ask them what they’re doing. Speak gently to them,” Schory orders one of his soldiers.
After a brief conversation, the soldier returns and says, “They’re guarding the place.”
The radio’s speaker crackles in the jeep as a unit on foot reports an unexpected development. “There’s a vehicle here with strobe lights shining on us and giving our position away, over.”
Schory reacts with annoyance. This could torpedo the arrests and ruin the element of surprise.
The vehicle, it turned out, is a Palestinian Authority police patrol cruiser that had been unaware of the raid. The policemen are told to shut off their lights and leave the area.
“Hurry up and get them out of there. They may have alerted the wanted men to us,” Schory says over the radio.
“The village is talking about us now. Get to your targets as soon as possible,” he commands the ground forces. The jeep proceeds onwards, into the heart of the village.
Schory and his men disembark near the scene of a house raid. A Palestinian couple come out of the home. The man shouts and gestured at the soldiers, but his wife restrains him and the two go back into the house.
Soldiers then spread out, shining lights in gardens, under cars and into alleyways while keeping their firearms facing forward, just in case.
This, it turns out, is the area from which a wanted suspect had gotten away. Schory returns to the jeep, continuing a radio conversation that began outside. “He’s on the roof? You can see him?” he asks an advanced surveillance equipment operator.
“Affirmative,” she replies. The jeep drives to the location where the suspect was sighted, turning left and right through the streets and navigating difficult terrain. The search continues at another address.
Meanwhile, units on foot are in the process of arresting eight suspects around the village. “Jonny is in our hands,” they report one after the other, using the code word for a completed arrest. Other forces seize documents and computers – information that will be used to further map out terrorist activities.
Shortly after 4 a.m., loudspeakers across the village come to life with the Muslim call to prayer. “Allahu Akbar,” the muezzin calls out as the first hint of a sunrise becomes visible on the horizon.
The soldiers work on, searching areas, reporting their progress to Schory and remaining on the lookout for potential gunmen.
At 5 a.m., Schory sends out the code word ending the operation. The forces begin heading back to base. “We worked all night, but I’m leaving with a feeling of satisfaction because we have most of the suspects,” F.-Sgt. Hadad says.
“This is a big blow to local terror elements,” Schory says from the front seat of the jeep. “But I expect they will try to take revenge tomorrow by hurling Molotov cocktails at passing vehicles. Nevertheless, these arrests have made things significantly safer in the big picture,” he says.
Later that morning, a routine message is transmitted to military reporters from the IDF Spokesman’s Office. “Eight wanted terror suspects arrested in Azun, east of Kalkilya,” the message says. “Another suspect arrested in Bir Zeit, north of Ramallah.
Three Molotov cocktails were thrown at Israeli vehicles traveling southwest of Bethlehem. Soldiers are scanning the area.”
The messages do not reflect the exhausting work of soldiers of the Kfir Brigade, which made 85% of the arrests in the West Bank in recent years.
“This is what prevents terror attacks in Israel and Judea and Samaria,” Schory says.
Back at base, eight blindfolded and handcuffed suspects, all young men, some bearded, are led to a building.
“Give them water and make sure they’re OK,” is Schory’s final order of the night.
“The arrests in Azun were part of a much broader, brigade-level operation, executed by Col. Ran Cahane, commander of the Ephraim Regional Brigade. The brigade regularly deals with the full spectrum of security threats facing the Judea and Samaria Division, including formal terror organizations seeking to reestablish their hold in the area and smaller localized groups that are carrying out terror attacks independently of larger organizations,” a senior security source says.