Security and Defense: Arrested developments

The 'Post' joins a West Bank operation to hunt down down four Hamas and Islamic Jihad suspects.

nablus arrest 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
nablus arrest 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The column of jeeps thunders through the windy streets of Kalkilya, disturbing the quiet in this West Bank city. An occasional taxi rumbles by, its passengers grabbing a quick glance at the IDF soldiers. One or two grocery stores are still open. Suddenly, at one of the main intersections in the city, the column led by Lt.-Col. Nir Bar-On breaks into four teams, each heading in a different direction. It is 2 a.m. Monday, and there are only a few hours of darkness left for the troops to arrest their targets and leave before daylight. Bar-On is the commander of the Kfir Brigade's Nachshon Battalion which, since 2003, has been the IDF unit responsible for security and order in Kalkilya and Tulkarm. The Jerusalem Post joined Bar-On and his men on this night raid in Kalkilya in search of four terror suspects from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Kalkilya, whose mayor is a Hamas member, has an estimated population of 45,000. Like many West Bank cities, its streets are littered with garbage and its sidewalks are lined with palm trees. Many of the homes are dilapidated, others are under construction. Bar-On is no stranger to the city. Since becoming commander of Nachshon in 2006, he has conducted more than 700 arrest raids in the West Bank, a good number of them here. The importance of curbing terrorism in this city is obvious to Bar-On. Kalkilya, which is surrounded by the security barrier, straddles Route 6 - the Trans-Israel Highway - and is less than two kilometers from Kfar Saba. During the Second Lebanon War, a Fatah terror cell operating in Kalkilya and Tulkarm under orders from Hizbullah tried firing rockets into Kfar Saba. The cell was quickly dismantled, but, according to Bar-On, it would succeed in rebuilding itself if not for the daily IDF operations in the cities. "Kalkilya exports a significant level of terrorism," he says. "There is a strong Hamas infrastructure here that is working on trying to create an Executive Force like the one it established in the Gaza Strip." Intelligence for the arrest operations is provided by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). A couple of agents accompany the troops during the operations with the job of interrogating the suspects and verifying their identities. After 10 minutes of crisscrossing the city, Bar-On's jeep and three others pull up in front of a three-story home on a dark corner. The soldiers, well practiced, quickly roll out of their jeeps and take up positions - some facing the home and others the opposite direction to rule out sniper fire. After verifying the address, the soldiers begin knocking on the steel door with their rifle butts, making enough noise to wake up the entire block. Lights begin to go on inside, but no one opens the door. "Throw a stun grenade," one of the officers orders a soldier. Finally, the building's residents begin to come downstairs and file outside one by one. The soldiers line them up against the building, and begin sifting through their identity cards. The Shin Bet agent takes the oldest man to the side and begins questioning him. The soldiers then enter the building, and search for explosives and ammunition, room by room. THE IDF'S arrest operations in the West Bank go largely unnoticed in the media. They take place every night, usually in a number of cities simultaneously. Diligence, Bar-On explains, is the key to the IDF's success in curbing terror. On Wednesday night, as an example, Nachshon - together with Engineering Corps soldiers - uncovered a large explosive laboratory in Kalkilya filled with metal plates for the bombs and close to 100 kilograms of fire powder and 100 kg. of fertilizer. In 2007, he points out, not a single suicide bomber succeeded in infiltrating from the West Bank. This is in comparison to five years ago, when 62 such attacks claimed the lives of 234 Israelis. These operations also play a role in ensuring the survival of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's government in Ramallah. Predictions in the defense establishment are that the moment the IDF pulls out of the West Bank, it will only take a number of days for Hamas to rebuild its terror infrastructure and violently oust Fatah from power. Last month, Bar-On's battalion captured Omar Jaber, the Hamas commander in Tulkarm who, in 2002, was one of the masterminds of the Park Hotel suicide attack in the middle of the Pessah seder which killed 30 Israelis and wounded 140 more. In January, Bar-On was shot in the arm during an arrest operation in a village near Tulkarm. After receiving quick treatment from the battalion's medic, he waited for the regional brigade commander to arrive before agreeing to be evacuated to Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba. There, doctors told him how lucky he was that the bullet missed the bone, since it entered and exited just below the elbow. A few hours later, he was back in Tulkarm helping his soldiers wrap up the operation. Tulkarm has been mentioned by defense officials as possibly the next West Bank city in line to have armed Palestinian soldiers deploy inside. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has already allowed soldiers to deploy in Nablus, and some 700 soldiers are currently undergoing training in Jordan ahead of their planned deployment in Jenin. The idea is to slowly allow PA forces to take over security control of the West Bank cities as part of the effort to prevent Hamas's military buildup and to bolster Abbas - something that has also recently included the dismantling of 50 dirt roadblocks and two checkpoints. These goodwill gestures have created a headache for Central Command, which would prefer to retain both the roadblocks and operational freedom in the West Bank. Accompanying Bar-On on this operation is Col. Itay Avirov, commander of the Kfir Brigade. Avirov says that he spends at least three nights a week in an arrest operation with one of the six battalions under his command. In addition to Nachshon, Kfir also has battalions stationed in Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jenin and the Jordan Valley. "This is our job," he says of the late-night raids. "When people are alive in Kfar Saba, and people can go to work in Tel Aviv, we know that we are successful. We are protecting the home front."