Israel's security service Shin Bet announced on Thursday that it had foiled a large transnational Hamas terror network that was plotting to carry out multiple attacks in Jerusalem, including on the city's soccer stadium.
More than 30 Palestinians, two Jordanians and a Kuwaiti were arrested in connection with planning shooting, bombing and kidnapping attacks against Israelis in a September sting operation, the Shin Bet said. Police confiscated M16 rifles, ammunition and explosive devices during the bust. Jerusalem's light rail system was also among the cell's targets.
According to the Shin Bet statement, the terror network's operation stretched across the Middle East.
The security service reported that the terror cell's nerve center and recruitment hub was in Turkey but planned to launch attacks from West Bank and Jordan. Operatives were said to be trained in terrain navigation, conducting clandestine operations and weapons handling in Syria and Gaza, with the latter entered by the terror recruits via smuggling tunnels.
If true, the busted plot reveals a concerning strengthening of Hamas' international reach, experts say. "It's very worrying that these kind of plots can be planned without the security services in the countries where they are operating stopping them. Not in Turkey, not in Jordan, not in Syria. Either because they don't mind them doing it, or because of the mess that the Middle East is in, it is possible to get away with it without being detected," Professor Yossi Mekelberg, an Middle East associate fellow with the UK think-tank Chatham House told VICE News.
During a recent trip to the US, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon reportedly complained about a new Hamas headquarters opening in Istanbul. "Turkey is playing a cynical game. Hamas is sponsored by Turkey and Qatar, the former is a NATO member. It's inconceivable that this terror group should have headquarters in the Gaza Strip and Istanbul," Ya'alon said in a meeting with then-US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
On Thursday, speaking during a visit to Sde Boker Kibbutz, the burial ground of Israel's Zionist founder David Ben-Gurion, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the Shin Bet and the army for "foiling very dangerous terrorist actions that could have claimed many victims in our country" but alluded to more terror attacks being plotted against Israel.
"We are operating day and night in order to maintain the security of Israel's citizens… This is one operation that has been published but there are many more that remain secret," he added.
Thursday's announcement of the arrests -— which were made more than two months ago — comes as Netanyahu faces mounting pressure both at home and abroad, sparking speculation that the release of information about the successful terror bust was politically motivated.
Israel has faced substantial international criticism after a bloody 7-week war in Gaza that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians. Its heavy-handed response to a recent spate of Palestinian terror attacks, including the revival of the controversial policy of demolishing the family homes of terror suspects and proposals to revoke the residency permits of their relatives, has also prompted widespread condemnation by human rights groups.
"There is an obvious political capital in making this announcement at a time when Israel is under attack for its handling of the current situation," Mekelberg told VICE News. "Now Netanyahu can say: We're not just taking harsh measures against the Palestinians, we don't just decide to demolish houses. They are plotting against us."
News of the arrests will also help Netanyahu on a domestic front, where the prime minister is courting the country's powerful right ahead of rumored early elections and under mounting pressure from the public to act to end a wave of terror attacks.
Centered on Jerusalem, stabbing, shooting and hit-and-run attacks by Palestinians have killed at least 11 Israeli citizens in the last month.
Several of the suspects and perpetrators behind the recent series of attacks, including three men allegedly caught plotting to assassinate Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman with a rocket-propelled grenade, were West Bank Palestinians with ties to Hamas.
The spurt in Hamas activity beyond its Gaza stronghold suggests that group, deemed a terrorist organization by the US and European Union, may be attempting to destabilize its political opponents in the West Bank as well as carrying out violent "resistance" against Israeli occupation.
Hamas took over Gaza after an electoral battle with the leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas in June 2007 and set up its own government in the the strip while Abbas continued to lead Palestinians in West Bank.
Following a seven-year rift, the two divided Palestinian factions briefly reunited under the auspices of a national conciliation government in June this year. However the affair quickly descended into mutual finger pointing, with Hamas accusing the PA of getting into bed with the Israeli state and the PA in turn accusing Hamas of undermining its authority .
Terror attacks launched from the West Bank "would also serve Hamas by keeping the spotlight off the Strip.. [and are] intended to drag Israel into a severe response and bring about the collapse of the Palestinian Authority," warned the Shin Bet.
A growth in influence of Hamas — widely considered more radical than the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the dominant force in the PA — in the West Bank is concerning for Israel. While Abbas publicly condemned a recent terror attack on a synagogue that killed four rabbis, Hamas celebrated it, praising the perpetrators as "martyrs." It has also called for more "revenge attacks" against "Israeli occupiers."
"Right now, there is no love lost between Hamas and Fatah and in the very twisted way of the Middle East the war in Gaza has strengthened Hamas giving them a lot of credibility on the streets at a time when the PLO, Fatah are not seen as being able to achieve anything for the Palestinians," Mekelberg told VICE News.
"Israel's actions combined with no viable peace process creates space for radicalization… and of course they [Hamas] would love to have more power in the West Bank. Now with the current weakness of Abbas they hope there is a chance to achieve this," he added.
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