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Capture of Jerusalem Terrorists Shocks Israel, Raises Questions

August 23, 2002
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The recent capture of a Hamas cell in eastern Jerusalem believed responsible for a series of devastating terrorist attacks was a major coup for Israel’s security forces — but it underscored the challenge Israel faces in fighting terrorism when the perpetrators may come from within.

Israelis reacted with shock and consternation to the fact that the four cell members from eastern Jerusalem used their Israeli identity cards, places of employment and freedom of movement to carry out some of the most devastating attacks in the Palestinian intifada, killing 35 people and wounded dozens.

Among the attacks attributed to the cell were the July 31 bombing at Hebrew University that killed nine people, including five Americans.

The cell also is believed to have carried out the March suicide bombing at Jerusalem’s Moment Caf and a suicide bombing at a Rishon le-Zion pool hall in May.

The cell also tried, on two occasions to derail Israeli trains by planting bombs on the tracks near Lod. They also planted two bombs on fuel tankers, one of which blew up beneath a tanker at the country’s largest depot, Pi Glilot.

The Pi Glilot attack, which because of a series of coincidences caused no injuries, raised Israeli fears of a “mega- terror” attack that could cause thousands of casualties.

Deputy Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra said the capture of eastern Jerusalem residents at the core of a terrorist cell completely shattered the left’s claim that terrorists were driven by economic hardship, hunger and poverty.

“These people had it made from every aspect,” Ezra wrote in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv. “They did not live under closure or blockade. They enjoyed a good living, freedom of movement throughout the country. Despite this, they turned murder into an industry that coldly killed 35 Israelis and was always looking for the next murderous attack.

“All of this proves that hardship” is not “what pushes the Palestinian murderers, but vast hate, cultivated by religious leaders and the Palestinian Authority,” Ezra wrote.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai said he was taking steps to revoke the permanent residency status of the four Jerusalemites.

As a first step, Yishai asked the state attorney’s office and the Shin Bet security service to provide him with material showing that the four had been involved in terrorist activities.

Yishai already has begun proceedings to revoke the citizenship of two Israeli Arabs suspected of terrorist activity. The interior minister, who has been criticized for what some considered an extreme move, said it is the only way to deter terrorists who are Israelis or live in Israel from exploiting their status to harm the state.

“We are in the midst of a war, and we are obliged to protect ourselves,” Yishai said Thursday.

Unlike Israeli Arabs, residents of eastern Jerusalem are not Israeli citizens. They can vote in Jerusalem municipal elections — though most elect not to, so as not to legitimize Israeli rule, and because of threats from Palestinian leaders — but they cannot vote in elections for the Knesset.

Since the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords, they can vote in Palestinian elections.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, who has taken pride in the fact that eastern Jerusalem residents for the most part have refrained from violent activity during the intifada, expressed shock at the existence of the cell.

“This is something I feared,” Olmert said.

In addition to the four eastern Jerusalem residents, Israeli security forces arrested a cell member near Ramallah.

Security forces said the cell’s commanders located in Ramallah received their instructions from Damascus. Israeli security forces said the cell apparently was planning “mega-attacks” against Israel.

The men were captured Saturday night by Israeli security forces, who thwarted an attempt to carry out an attack in central Israel. On Tuesday, Israeli experts recovered the bomb the cell had intended to use in the attack, which they had hidden near the entrance to Jerusalem.

At least eight major attacks were attributed to the group. They include the July 31 bombing at Hebrew University’s Frank Sinatra cafeteria. Nine people were killed, among them five Americans, and over 80 were wounded.

According to reports, one cell member jumped the fence of the university the night before the attack and hid the bomb behind a bush. The next day, Mohammed Odeh, who worked as a painter for a contractor doing renovations on the campus, showed up for work. He picked up the bomb from its hiding place, took it to the cafeteria, put it in on a table and covered it with a newspaper. He then left the campus and detonated the bomb by remote control from a cell phone.

The day after the attack, Odeh reported to work to repaint the scorched walls of the cafeteria.

A French foreign student wounded in the cafeteria bombing said he felt only slightly relieved by the capture of the cell responsible for the attack.

“If I understand the news correctly, it is only the tip of the iceberg. It is scary that there are terrorist cells prepared to do everything to hurt us,” the daily Ma’ariv quoted him as saying.

American Jewish organizations demanded that the cell members be extradited to the United States to face trial.

The cell is also allegedly responsible for several other attacks:

The May 23 attempted attack at Israel’s central fuel depot. The cell planned to set off a bomb hidden beneath a fuel tanker, igniting the fuel reserves at Pi Glilot, in a densely populated area on the northern outskirts of Tel Aviv. The bomb exploded, but failed to ignite the tanker.

The May 7 suicide bombing at a Rishon le-Zion pool hall. Fifteen people were killed and 45 wounded in the attack. One of the cell members, Wissam Abassi, worked in the Rishon le-Zion industrial zone as a glazier and knew the pool hall was crowded and unguarded at night.

The March 9 suicide bombing at the Moment Caf in Jerusalem. Eleven people were killed and some 60 wounded. Cell members chose the location and drove the suicide bomber to the site.

The cell also is believed responsible for two attempts to derail passenger trains by planting bombs on the tracks. On June 30, four people were wounded when a bomb planted on the tracks near Lod, in central Israel, exploded.

According to security forces, all of the cell members from eastern Jerusalem used their jobs and freedom of movement to gather information to carry out attacks.

The four eastern Jerusalem cell members were identified as:

Wa’al Kassem, 31, commander of the cell. A resident of the Ras al-Amud neighborhood, he is married and has four children.

Kassem served as the liaison between the command center in Ramallah and the cell, officials said. He worked in renovations and provided shuttle services in his car.

Odeh, 29. A resident of the Silwan neighborhood of Jerusalem who worked as a painter for an Israeli contractor at Hebrew University. He is married and has two children.

Wissam Abassi, 25. The Silwan resident worked as a glazier in Rishon le-Zion, is married and has one child.

Ala’a Abassi, 30, a Silwan resident. He worked as an air-conditioning technician for an Israeli company, is married and has two children.

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