13 arrested in terror cell behind US hiker’s death

4 Palestinians indicted for murder in December of Kristine Luken; cell responsible for series of killings, violence since 2009.

Terror suspects 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Terror suspects 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Four Palestinians from villages near Hebron were indicted on Wednesday in the murder of an American tourist last December in a forest near Beit Shemesh, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Jerusalem Police said.
The suspects are central members of an independent terror cell in the West Bank responsible for two murders, two attempted murders and at least one rape – as well as other incidents of theft and violence dating back to the summer of 2009, according to the indictment.
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Thirteen men were arrested in connection with the cell following a month-long joint investigation by the Shin Bet, Border Police, special army units and police, it was announced on Wednesday.
Police were aware of the terrorist cell operating in the area for the past six months, but were only able to arrest members after the attack in the Mata area on December 18, when American Kristine Luken was killed. Her hiking partner, Kay Wilson, was seriously wounded.
Wilson survived by playing dead, despite being stabbed 12 times and suffering several broken ribs, a punctured lung and a broken sternum.
Wilson recounted the attack for The Jerusalem Post in detail two weeks ago, while recuperating at a friend’s home.
Twenty minutes after the women were attacked, she was separated from Luken and forced to get down on her knees, with her hands bound with her shoelaces.
“I [saw him] get out his knife and he pushes my head forward, and I’m just waiting to be beheaded,” Wilson said. “I think psychologically at that point I lost all sense of fear – I completely blacked out. All I could think about was that he’d make a clean cut – that he wouldn’t be messy.
“I’m waiting for ‘Allahu akbar!’ but it doesn’t come. Instead, I hear, ‘Oh no, oh God,’ and I can hear them starting to stab [Luken] a few times.
The next thing I know... he’s just stabbing me. It was so terrifying there wasn’t a capacity for fear. I’m just thinking ‘I’m being murdered, what a waste – I’m 46-years old and I’m actually being murdered.’” Wilson was able to provide accurate descriptions of the attackers, which she shared with investigators between surgeries at Hadassah University Hospital-Ein Kerem, in the hours after the attack.
Wilson’s testimony allowed the police to arrest the two main suspects – Ayad Fasafa and Kafah Animat – less than 48 hours after the attack, Jerusalem Police chief Cmdr. Aharon Franco said.
The suspects were arrested on December 20 in a joint IDF-Shin Bet operation. They immediately confessed to committing the attack, and reenacted it in the field.
During questioning, one of the suspects, Kafah Animat, confessed to the murder last February of Neta Shorek Blatt, a Zichron Ya’acov resident whose body was found in Beit Jamal on February 24. Police never concluded their investigation into the death of 56- year-old Blatt – suspecting her death was a suicide, which her family refused to believe.
The terrorist cell began as a group involved in petty crimes dating back to 1999 – including car thefts and house break-ins, Franco said. Many of the men were known to police, and some had served time in prison.
The group took a turn toward nationalistically motivated terrorism following the assassination of Hamas commander Muhammad al-Mahbouh in Dubai last January. On February 20, Animat attempted to murder an Ethiopian couple, also in the forest near Beit Shemesh.
Police said the ensuing attacks were not in retaliation for specific events, but they were certain the attacks were nationalistically motivated because all of the victims were Jewish, or perceived to be Jewish.
The men were not believed to have been affiliated with an organized terrorist group.
They are also charged with at least one rape and one rape attempt, in addition to shooting at army and police vehicles over the past year.
Four of the central suspects were indicted on Wednesday, and police are in the process of bringing indictments against the rest of the cell.
In addition to the four main suspects, four men were arrested for financially supporting the cell. An additional five were arrested for their peripheral involvement.
Wilson was hailed as a hero by the Shin Bet and the police for providing the investigators with the breakthrough to identify the suspects. The Shin Bet said the suspects confessed to planning the murder of Luken just hours prior to the attack.
“They decided they wanted to kill someone that day,” a Shin Bet source said.
During the struggle, Wilson stabbed one of the men in the arm with a small pocket knife she carried with her as a tour guide. This enabled the Shin Bet to link one of the suspects – who was imprisoned in the past – to Luken’s murder through DNA samples that were found at the scene.
“On a personal level, I’m relieved for myself, for Kristine’s family, and for the potential victims,” Wilson told the Post on Wednesday. “Everyone’s saying I’m a hero, but I just switched off emotionally, and I don’t know that anyone else would have done anything differently.”
Shin Bet sources said the suspects succeeded in entering Israel through gaps in the West Bank security barrier near the Betar Illit settlement, south of Jerusalem.
Police have identified the area between Hebron and Beit Shemesh as an especially porous part of the Green Line, where many Palestinians illegally enter Israel to get to their jobs around Beit Shemesh.
Police said the army’s Kfir Brigade, the Border Police and police stationed in the Beit Shemesh area have increased patrols to combat violence and other illegal activity in the area.