(photo credit: AP [file])
Following a dramatic highspeed chase, Jerusalem police on Tuesday intercepted a van on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway transporting a Palestinian on his way to carry out a suicide-bombing in the center of the country, Jerusalem police chief Ilan Franco said.
The van, stopped near Kibbutz Sha'alabim, transported 10 Palestinians along with a bag containing between five and seven kilograms of explosives packed with shrapnel.
The would-be bomber, a man in his 20s who is affiliated with Islamic Jihad, is from the West Bank village of Yamoun, where a 10-year-old Palestinian girl was killed in a botched IDF operation last week.
Tuesday's high-speed drama began shortly after noon when police, aided by a helicopter, gave chase to a white van as it left the capital. Jerusalem had been placed under a red alert an hour earlier as a result of intelligence information regarding an imminent terror attack.
The driver of the van, an east Jerusalem resident, was transporting Palestinians who had illegally entered Israel and aroused the suspicions of police. When he ignored their orders to stop the vehicle, a 15-minute high-speed chase ensued on the country's main highway with police vehicles, sirens blaring, in hot pursuit as the van raced past two makeshift checkpoints.
The van was forced to stop by traffic caused by multiple roadblocks erected by police on the highway. Police officers, their guns drawn, surrounded the vehicle and ordered the driver out of the van.
In the tense moments that followed, police discovered that there were no fewer than 10 men inside the vehicle whose tinted windows had kept them hidden from view, said police officer Ofer Dror, who was involved in the chase.
After all the men were arrested, police sappers accompanied by bomb-sniffing dogs entered the vehicle and found the bag of explosives hidden inside, setting off panic among nearby motorists.
Following the discovery of the explosives, police ordered all the van's passengers to strip down to their underwear and lie face-down on the ground to be searched for explosive belts.
As the saga unfolded, traffic on the four-lane highway ground to a halt, with massive traffic jams reported on the road throughout the early afternoon hours, both during and after the Hollywoodthriller-like chase.
It was not immediately clear whether the vehicle's driver or passengers had been aware that a suicide bomber was traveling with them.
Security officials theorized that the would-be bomber did not detonate the explosives in the vehicle because of the nine other Palestinian passengers around him.
The foiled terror attack came just one week before Israel's elections, and amidst increased intelligence warnings regarding planned attacks. In the past, Palestinian terror groups have carried out bombings before Israeli elections.
Last month, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Iran had transferred $1.8 million to Islamic Jihad in the West Bank. "This money is the fuel for their terror activity," he said. Israel, Mofaz added, was using all legal means to stop the money transfers. "We are doing whatever we can by law and there are money channels that we have stopped," he said. "Unfortunately, however, there are still ways that they succeed in transferring the funds."
Six suicide bombings were thwarted in Jerusalem last year, the city's police chief said earlier this month.
Over the last year, Jerusalem police uncovered two improvised Palestinian "minibus lines" operated by east Jerusalem residents that transported illegal Palestinian workers - as well as terrorists - into Israel. The suicide bombers who carried out attacks in Hadera and Netanya last year are believed to have used this method of transportation to get into Israel.
Islamic Jihad has carried out all six suicide bombings in Israel since an informal truce by some Palestinian terror factions went into effect early last year.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, two residents of Nablus became the first Palestinians to be charged with membership in the al-Qaida international terror group. In an indictment submitted to the Salem Military Court in Samaria, the two men - Azam Abu al-Adas and Balal Hafanawi - both in their 20s, were charged with trying to recruit Palestinians to carry out attacks on behalf of al-Qaida.
The two, the indictment states, were in the planning stages of an attack in Jerusalem that was to involve a suicide bomber as well as a car bomb. They were caught in December at the Allenby Bridge after returning from a visit to Jordan. They had planned to rent a house in Jerusalem to be used as a base for the attack.
Mofaz told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday that al-Qaida cells were operating in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and were planning attacks against Israel. The cells, he said, received their orders from al-Qaida leaders outside of Israel.
Mofaz said Hizbullah was also involved in terror operations in Israel and sends instructions and funding to terror groups in the West Bank, including Islamic Jihad.
Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.