JERUSALEM (Aug. 4)
A month into the cease-fire declared by Palestinian terrorist groups, the fear of suicide bombers has been replaced by fear of kidnappers.
The Israel Defense Forces repeatedly has warned soldiers not to hitchhike, young lovers to avoid isolated places and parents to think twice before letting their children out at night.
As for protecting government officials, the security belt around Cabinet ministers is as tight as ever.
Concern has intensified following the abduction last month of taxi driver Eliahu Gurel — who was rescued from Ramallah in an operation by IDF commandos — and the murder of soldier Oleg Sheichat, who was abducted in the Galilee.
This week, authorities were searching for two missing teenagers: Dana Bennet, 18, a waitress from Tiberias, who disappeared on July 31, and a 19-year-old American yeshiva student studying in Jerusalem, who disappeared Sunday.
The security forces often have warned that terrorists might try to kidnap Israeli soldiers and civilians in order to try to trade them as pawns for large numbers of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.
The warnings take on extra weight as Israel and the Palestinians tussle over the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
Israel on Monday publicized a list of 443 prisoners to be released this week, but the Palestinian Authority is demanding that Israel release thousands. In addition, the releases will not cover Israeli Arabs involved in terrorism.
The impasse has increased frustration and rage among families of Palestinian terrorists and among Israeli Arabs, creating the motivation for kidnappings, security officials warn.
However, in the cases of Gurel and Sheichat, the kidnappers did not seriously try to negotiate a deal for Palestinian prisoners.
In the case of Gurel, the kidnappers demanded the release of prisoners but soon reverted to demanding ransom — and eventually got nothing.
In the case of Sheichat, no contact was made between kidnappers and authorities– probably because the kidnappers killed the soldier shortly after abducting him.
In the cases still open, Bennet disappeared on Thursday night shortly after leaving a cab that drove her home from the restaurant where she works. Police have conducted wide searches near the community of Migdal, north of Tiberias, but they say they’re in the dark about her fate.
The yeshiva student disappeared Sunday while visiting Mount Meron, near Safed, when he stayed behind at a holy man’s tomb while his friends went hiking.
Police searched for him in Safed, Jerusalem and near Netanya, where one person claimed he dropped the student off after giving him a lift.
Police don’t whether Bennet or the American yeshiva student were kidnapped, and it remains unclear whether the disappearances have anything to do with terrorist activities.
However, police have expressed concern that the disappearances in the Galilee region of Sheichat, Bennet and the American student may all be linked to a single gang of terrorists.
This concern intensified following reports last week from an IDF soldier, who said unidentified men tried to force him into a car while he was waiting for a ride. The soldier said he scared the men off at gunpoint.
Security forces on Monday were able to arrest two terrorists responsible for suicide bombings in Jerusalem. The two allegedly confessed that they also had planned to kidnap soldiers, civilians and politicians, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other Cabinet ministers.
Since the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi by Palestinian terrorists in October 2001, security forces have warned that terrorists might try to hurt Israeli politicians.
Samer Atrash and Omar Sharif, both residents of eastern Jerusalem, allegedly drove and assisted the suicide bombers who blew up buses in Jerusalem last May and June. Seven people were killed in an explosion at an intersection in the French Hill neighborhood on May 18, and 17 people were killed in a June 11 explosion downtown.
Both men used their Israeli identity cards to move freely around the country and collect information on potential targets.
Sharif, who worked as a janitor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, allegedly drove one suicide bomber to downtown Jerusalem, where he helped him put on the explosive vest and dress up as a fervently Orthodox Jew.
The terrorist then boarded a bus that exploded on Jaffa Street not far from the Mahane Yehuda produce market.
The suspects reportedly said they also had attempted to kidnap Israeli civilians after making contact with them through the Internet.
Security sources reiterated Monday that these cases prove once again how the terrorist organizations make use of eastern Jerusalem residents, who are mostly Arab, to carry out attacks inside Israel.