Sunday, September 25, 2011

Is the Temple Mount in their hands?

Capture of would-be suicide bomber at Al-Aqsa Mosque no surprise to Israel Security Agency • Still lots of attacks from Hamas in Jerusalem and all over the South • Syrian Hamas headquarters perceived as natural source and no one is talking about the one in Turkey. 
Nadav Shragai
Soldiers patrolling at the Western Wall, just next to the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Mosque.
 Photo credit: Dudi Vaaknin

The capture of would-be suicide bomber Said Qawasmeh in the Al-Aqsa Mosque came as no surprise to officials of the Israel Security Agency, otherwise known as the Shin Bet. They had captured terrorists inside the Temple Mount compound before. However, the fragile political situation gives rise to suspicions that terror attacks by Hamas in the Jerusalem region and in Judea and Samaria, which had subsided a little over the past several years, will resume at full strength with support from Hamas in Gaza and the organization’s headquarters in Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

“Hamas’ interest in perpetrating attacks stems not only from its conflict with the Palestinian Authority, but also from its rivalry with extremist organizations,” a high-ranking security official warned. September is about to reach the boiling point.

Sunday, Aug. 21, was a tough day for the communities on the Gaza periphery. Sirens sounded in Ashkelon and Beersheba as well. Grad and Qassam rockets left destruction and traumatized people in their wake, and residents were told to remain in protected areas. While most of the media attention was directed southward, at the same time, police and soldiers in Jerusalem were in a race against time, trying to capture Qawasmeh, 20, a would-be suicide terrorist from Hebron who, according to intelligence, was on his way to Pisgat Zeev.
The bomb that Qawasmeh was supposed to use had been captured 24 hours earlier. It comprised a sprinkler filled with 6 kilograms of explosives, with ball bearings glued around it. Azhak Arrafa, a resident of east Jerusalem who was supposed to transport Qawasme to his destination, was the one who led the police officers and the security services to the bomb, which had been hidden near his home in the Ras al-Amud neighborhood.

Security officials did not know whether Qawasme was carrying additional explosives on his person. A nerve-wracking 24 hours passed. It seemed that the earth had swallowed Qawasmeh. In the end, one long-time detective guessed that Qawasme was hiding inside a mosque, perhaps even the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount. He based his guess on past experience: Over the years, there had been several incidents in which mosques in general, and the mosques on the Temple Mount in particular, have served as hideouts in which terrorists who had perpetrated attacks, or were about to carry them out, met, organized or hid.
The last connection to the Temple Mount that the detective remembered had to do with two terrorists who had allegedly planned to fire a rocket at Teddy Stadium during a Betar Jerusalem game. (One of them has since been tried and convicted, and the other’s trial is still in progress.} According to the Shin Bet, the two men served as Hamas’ representatives on the Temple Mount and were employed there at high salaries for three years. In Qawasmeh’s case, the shot in the dark proved accurate. He was indeed hiding on the Temple Mount and even stayed there overnight. He was captured the next morning near the Al-Aqsa Mosque thanks to intelligence that came from the Temple Mount.

The calm almost shattered
September, or “the September area” (as the Israel Defense Forces have nicknamed it), is already upon us. The contingency scenarios that aim to predict how the players will behave and the many variables on the ground have been laid on the prime minister’s desk. Nevertheless, one major subject that has more questions than answers keeps security officials from sleeping: the possibility that Hamas, of which Qawasmeh was a member, will resume terror attacks in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria.

There is support on the ground for these fears. After several years of relative dormancy, Hamas in Judea, Samaria and east Jerusalem is awake once more. Since last May, the Shin Bet, the IDF and police have uncovered 13 Hamas terrorist cells. Study of the way in which these cells and their predecessors behaved shows how close we were in recent months to having the fragile calm shattered in a new bloodbath, and how much we owe the security services that managed to prevent a series of terror attacks.

While this past year has seen successful cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in uncovering terrorist cells, security officials say that on the eve of the Palestinians’ appeal to the U.N., there is no guarantee that similar attempts will not be repeated in the coming months. While the Palestinian Authority is busy with its bid for statehood at the U.N., trying with all its might not to sabotage its diplomatic efforts, the Islamic rivals have an interest in stealing the show by proving that the promises of non-violent resistance have nothing behind them.

The interrogation of the terrorists who were arrested recently, like that of the ones who were arrested previously, shows that Hamas is trying to rebuild its military infrastructure in Judea and Samaria in order to perpetrate terror attacks against Israeli targets. Shin Bet officials say that three elements -- imprisoned Hamas terrorists, Hamas in Gaza and Hamas’ headquarters abroad -- are partners in the endeavor.
The Hamas headquarters that were involved in the recent attempts to carry out a terror attack are located in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Imprisoned Hamas terrorists who urge their comrades on the outside to act have a specific, focused goal: another kidnapping that would recreate Hamas’s success in the Gilad Shalit case. At the same time, Hamas in Gaza is busy planning, funding and attempting to bring arms and ammunition to cells in Judea and Samaria.

Between Jerusalem and Mecca
Security officials are tight-lipped about the involvement of Hamas abroad. Nevertheless, if the involvement of the headquarters in Syria is perceived as almost natural and they are not eager to talk about the one in Turkey because of the sensitivity and the crisis with Erdogan, they release a bit of information when it comes to Saudi Arabia. There, too, as on the Temple Mount and in the mosques in Jerusalem, Mecca, with its mosques, is a magnet.

The two centers are connected to each other. The prominent example is that of Moussa Hamada, of the village of Zur Baher in east Jerusalem, whose trial is still in progress (and who denies the charges against him). According to the state, Hamada, who was employed over the past three years as Hamas’ representative on the Temple Mount, met a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an engineer named Bassem, in Mecca about two years ago, and received a coded telephone number from him so that he would be able to contact him in the future. Later, the engineer gave Hamada money intended for the purchase of a gun as part of his Hamas activity. Hamada and his friend Bassem el-Umri are on trial for a series of security offenses, including plans to fire a rocket at Teddy Stadium.

Ahmed Madhoun, too, was recruited in Saudi Arabia. Madhoun, a 44-year-old resident of Hebron, active in Hamas’ military wing and a former prisoner, led a Hamas cell in Hebron that was captured last June, several days before it was to perpetrate a series of terror attacks. After he was recruited, he returned to Israel, where he assisted the work of Shahar Sakafi, a fellow member of the Hamas military cell. The cell’s main goal was to kidnap a soldier for bargaining purposes. The third member of the cell, Mazab Abu Shahidam, who was involved in planning the kidnapping, planned to hide the kidnapped soldier in his grandfather’s home. He was captured in possession of an electric shocker, which he allegedly intended to use during the kidnapping. The group also had a branch in Jerusalem. Qawasmeh and Azhak Arrafa belong to it, and they were the ones who kept the whole Jerusalem district on its toes last August.

A hothouse in prison
The involvement of terrorists imprisoned in Israeli jails and of former prisoners in directing the recently formed terrorist groups in the West Bank is certainly something to think about in connection with the Shalit deal that is currently under discussion. Among the recent detainees, as many as 20 members of Hamas in the West Bank who were about to complete their sentences were recruited before their release from prison and told to perpetrate terror attacks, with an emphasis on kidnapping a soldier for use as a bargaining chip in negotiations for prisoner releases.

Here are several examples: Zabar Diab, 30, of Qalqiliya, currently imprisoned in Keziot, located and recruited terrorists and even taught them bomb-making theory. Diab also obtained funding for activities from Hamas in Gaza. Among the recruits were Ihab Sada of Qalqiliya, who served a four-year prison sentence; Mahmad Tamizi, who spent two years in jail and was ordered to form a secret organization, together with Fathi Milut, in order to hide the kidnapped soldier and organize the cell that would attack the IDF jeep, kidnap the soldier and take him to the safe house; and Baha Faroukh, a resident of Zurif, who spent two years in prison and planned to obtain explosive materials for the cell. All three were arrested last summer.
It would seem, therefore, that prisons continue to serve as a hothouse and a school for terrorists who are just starting out. Nashat Karmi and Mamoun Natshe, who in August 2010 murdered the Ameses, Avishai Schindler and Kochava Even Haim, served their sentences in Israeli jails. Karmi re-established Hamas’s networks in the southern Hebron Hills and trained additional cadres of terrorists before he was killed together with his partner Natshe in an IDF operation a year ago. Also, the prisoners who were released as part of the Tannenbaum prisoner exchange worked to rehabilitate Islamic Jihad’s murderous terrorist network in the Jenin region.

But it is not only the prisons that have become a source of recruits for Hamas over the past several years. Universities in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem have become an attractive destination for finding and recruiting dozens of activists. Shin Bet officials say that the young students, who are highly intelligent, politically aware, motivated and possess leadership ability, are now being courted by recruiters from Hamas and other organizations. That, for example, is how Iyas Guri, Ali Shatia, Fouzi Kakoura and Handawi Kuarik, students at An-Najah University in Nablus who belonged to the Popular Front, planned shooting and bombing attacks and even plotted to assassinate the military judge who had tried the leader of their organization, Ahmed Saadat. Usra Amarna, a student from Bethlehem and a member of Hamas’ military infrastructure, expressed willingness to carry out a suicide attack. Tayoun Tayoun of Abu Dis University murdered Dr. Daniel Yaakobi of Yakir and set his body on fire inside his car. Other students who were involved in terrorist activity came from academic institutions in Tul Karm, Hebron, Kalkiliya and Bir Zeit.
‘Act from the West Bank, not from the Gaza strip’

After the prisons and the universities, the Temple Mount appears to be a well-proven focal point that draws terrorists to itself. Hamas is constantly trying to entrench its status in the mosque. Magad Jouaba, who was sentenced to two years in prison for his membership and activity in a terrorist organization, worked for Hamas’ Al-Aqsa Committee to strengthen Hamas’ hold on the Temple Mount. Jouaba was the man who made sure that the salaries of Moussa Hamada and Bassem el-Umri, who worked for Hamas in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, would be paid. In his plea-bargain deal, Jouaba confessed that he was responsible for the activity of a Hamas cell that worked for the Al-Aqsa Committees on the Temple Mount. Husam Aldin Alian, a Hamas operative who is serving a 14-month sentence, worked in the Al-Aqsa Mosque as a representative of Hamas and of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Today it can be told that terrorist cells used the mosques on the Temple Mount in the slightly more distant past as well. For example, that is what one cell did when it threw grenades at new recruits in the Givati Brigade who had completed their swearing-in ceremony near the Western Wall in 1986, and the cell that kidnapped and murdered Border Police soldier Nissim Toledano in December 1992 and traffic police officers Daniel Hazut and Mordechai Yisrael in March 1993 behaved similarly.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Shalom Harari, a former adviser on Palestinian affairs in the Defense Ministry and today a senior research scholar at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, says that the regions of Judea and Samaria are not considered territory in which Hamas feels obligated to keep the ceasefire. “In Gaza there are understandings, a kind of hudna [ceasefire]. Hamas is supposed to stop the firing -- mainly rockets -- across the fence in exchange for the IDF keeping its activity at low intensity. That, of course, creates a problem for them with the jihadist organizations that are growing. They accuse them of stopping the resistance.”

“How does one do resistance anyway?” Harari asks. “How do you do it while looking like you’re not? The idea is to do it in places that are not incriminating. Not from the Gaza Strip, but from inside the West Bank. That’s why we’re seeing more and more that attacks prevented recently came mostly from the Hebron region and also Jerusalem. There, you don’t get into trouble, either with jihadis or with the Palestinian Authority.”

Should we anticipate a wave of terror attacks in “the September area”? Will Hamas try to prove that the Palestinian Authority’s talk about non-violent resistance is just empty chatter? “Hamas is trying all the time, and it is likely that it will continue to try to perpetrate terror attacks,” Harari says. “As far as they are concerned, Jerusalem is preferable. There, the media echo is louder and the points of friction between Jews and Arabs create a convenient atmosphere for attacks. But terror attacks can also take place at crossing points, on access roads to settlements and inside the settlements themselves. Holy sites are also a target. The relative strength of Hamas’ military wing is mainly in the Hebron district, the Jerusalem region and Nablus. Hamas’ interest in perpetrating attacks stems not only from its conflict with the Palestinian Authority, but also with its competition with extremist organizations such as the Defenders of Al-Aqsa, the Islamic Liberation Party and other sub-groups and splinter groups, each belonging to a different organization.”

Shin Bet officials say that Hamas’s headquarters in Turkey is also involved in funding and training Hamas cells in Judea and Samaria. What do we know about this involvement? “In Turkey," he says, “there is fundraising for Hamas’ political wing. We are seeing that Turkey is turning into a center for Islamist conferences. One of the reconciliation conferences between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority took place there under Turkish sponsorship.”