Israel’s domestic intelligence service has arrested two senior Hamas operatives suspected of planning the two most recent suicide bombings in Israel.
The two suspects, who were arrested by Shin Bet agents who infiltrated a Hamas cell in the West Bank, were suspected of having recruited the suicide bombers who carried out Monday’s attack aboard a bus in Jerusalem and the July 24 suicide bus bombing in Ramat Gan.
The two were identified as A-Nasser Issa and Hatam Ismail, both from the Gaza Strip.
In addition to making the arrests, the Shin Bet also identified the suicide bombers in the two most recent attacks as Palestinians from the West Bank.
The arrests came as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators continued their talks in Eilat in an effort to complete the interim agreement that would extend Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank.
The man who carried out Monday’s bombing in Jerusalem was identified as Sufiyan Salam a-Rabbo Sabiah, 26, from the Hebron area. Five people, including the bomber, were killed in the attack, which also left more than 100 wounded.
The three identified victims of Monday’s attack were Rivka Cohen, 26, a student volunteer at Hadassah Hospital; Noam Eisenman, 35, a police officer, and Joan Davenny, 47, an American teacher at a Woodbridge, Conn. Jewish day school who was spending the year in Israel.
Davenny was buried in Jerusalem on Wednesday at a funeral attended by some 200 relatives and friends.
Among those at the funeral was U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk.
The two other bodies recovered from Monday’s blast remained unidentified on Wednesday.
Forensic experts were investigating the possibility that one of the bodies, a woman estimated to be in her late 30s, was a German tourist.
The other body was believed to be that of the bomber.
The suicide bomber who carried out the Ramat Gan attack – in which six Israelis were killed and 32 others wounded – was identified as Labib Anwar Fariz Azam, 22, from the Nablus area.
The head of the Shin Bet said Wednesday that after breaking up the Hamas cell they had infiltrated, security agents learned that the cell’s members had been ready to carry out car bombings, kidnappings of Israeli soldiers and other attacks to demand the release of jailed Hamas members.
The Shin Bet head said the arrests had been made over the weekend, and that the details of the cell’s future plans came out Tuesday as a result of interrogations of the arrested Hamas members.
The interrogations, he said, were carried out according to guidelines he had issued after consulting with legal officials.
In addition, he said, he Shin Bet had discovered a bombmaking factory in Nablus and had arrested some 30 people connected to it.
According to information released Wednesday, the two Hamas operatives who were arrested had links to Hamas fugitive Yehiya Ayash.
Ayash, known as “the engineer” for his bombmaking expertise, is believed to have masterminded several suicide attacks against Israelis.
After being trained by Ayash in explosives, the arrested Hamas members, Issa and Ismail, moved from Gaza to the West Bank with forged documents and began planning the attacks and recruiting the bombers.
Palestinian security forces in Gaza were reportedly continuing their hunt for Ayash, who was believed to be hiding out there.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, speaking about the arrests during a tour o the Golan Heights on Wednesday, did not discount the possibility that the bombers had received their marching orders from Damascus.
“The inspiration might have come from the outside,” Rabin said, but he stressed that the actual planning and execution of the attacks originated in the West Bank.
“The explosives were prepared there and the people who carried them were from there,” he said.
Wednesday’s revelations came amid newspaper reports of intense intelligence efforts to foil another Hamas attack.
Israeli newspapers reported that Israeli intelligence sources were warning that Muslim extremists were planning more suicide attacks in the coming weeks, as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are hammering out a final agreement for expanding Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank.
Responding to the reports, Environment Minister Yossi Sarid said the chances of another suicide attack were no greater than at other times.
“There is nothing new in the last days,” he said. “We have to be on watch, on guard, all the time. We are trying to do our best in order to avoid such unfortunate and very tragic events.”
The opposition Likud Party welcomed the Shin Bet arrests, but called and them further proof that the government’s peace policy has failed.
The Likud said in a statement that the fact that the people who planned the attacks were trained in Gaza – within the boundaries of Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat’s self-rule authority – proved that the government policy was hopeless.
Meanwhile, opposition members and other right-wing activities, including reserve army generals, rabbis, municipal leaders and families who lost members to terror began a hunger strike Wednesday opposite the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem to protest the government’s peace policy.
They planned to demonstrate until the end of the 7-day mourning period for the victims killed in Monday’s Jerusalem bus bombing.
The strikes said they were calling on the government to do three things: fight terror, halt the peace process for a reassessment and bring the interim self- rule agreement before the Israeli voting public for a national referendum.
“This government has brought us back maybe to the most dangerous situation since the War of Independence in 1948,” said Likud Knesset member Ariel Sharon.
Ran Cohen, leader of the dovish Meretz faction, called the hunger strike ridiculous, particularly in light of the latest Shin Bet operation.
In Gaza, meanwhile, several thousand Palestinian workers returned to jobs in Israel after Israel lifted the closure it had imposed following Monday’s attack.
But the closure on the West Bank remained in effect, amid the intelligence reports of possible future attacks.
At the Israeli-Palestinian talks in Eilat, U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross joined the process, where he held separate and joint discussions with the heads of the two delegations, Israel Radio reported.
Ross joined the talks as part of an American effort to reach an agreement as soon as possible.
At the same time, U.S. diplomatic sources were quoted as defending the decision to hold a signing ceremony in Washington next month.
Their statements came after reports in Israel said that some members o the Labor Party were concerned that an over-hyped “celebration” was being planned.
The U.S. sources were quoted by Israel Radio as saying that one reason the United States was pushing for a White House signing was to underscore the continuing American support for the peace process.
The source said they did not have to be told this was a period of mourning, given the fact that two American citizens had recently been killed in terror attacks.
In addition to Davenny, who was killed this week, American student Alisa Flatow was killed in an April 9 terrorist attack on bus in Gaza.