It happened exactly a year ago. Shortly after midnight, Yael Shahak and her 8-year-old daughter Chen were returning from a family gathering to their home in Beit El. Suddenly, the car in front of them slowed down. At first, Yael did not understand what was happening. She tried to signal to the driver with her lights, to no avail. The mysterious vehicle stopped in front of her, blocking her way. Yael tried to reverse her car, but the other car also shifted into reverse and drove after her. She tried to go to the right, but the car blocked her again. Four young men, their heads covered with hats and scarves, got out of the car and signaled to Yael to open her car door. When she refused, they began smashing the car windows with metal rods. Shards of broken glass fell on Chen, who had been sleeping.
Luckily for the mother and daughter, another car arrived, driven by Aharon Hass of Maaleh Levonah. Five lookouts who had been stationed at the side of the road and helped the attackers noticed him and warned the youths to flee. Hass saw the terrorists fleeing before he encountered Yael and Chen, who wept with relief.
Only a few months ago, it was learned that Yael and her daughter had been saved from a kidnapping attempt in which they were to be used as bargaining chips for the release of Palestinian prisoners. The terrorist cell, which was discovered by the Shin Bet, was headed by Muhammad Manzar Muhammad Ramadan of El-Bireh.
The members of Ramadan's cell, which belongs to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, planned their actions well. They bought a taser, tear gas, clubs and a gun-shaped cigarette lighter that looked like a real gun. They planned to hide the kidnap victims in a cave or an apartment in Ramallah, and also planned on filming the kidnapping and uploading the video to the Internet to start the negotiations for their release as soon as possible.
Several days before the attempt was made to kidnap Yael and her daughter, two other attempts at kidnapping had been made. Both failed. The first occurred near Beit Aryeh on the way to Kiryat Sefer. The members of the cell tried to entice a Jewish driver out of his car, but he managed to avoid them. The second attempt was similar to the one made against Yael and her daughter. An Israeli woman driving along the access road to Maaleh Levonah was blocked by the cell members, who began to smash the windows of her car, but she managed to maneuver and speed away.
Ramadan's cell is not alone. In 2011, 11 attempts to kidnap soldiers were reported. In 2012, 26 attempts were made to kidnap soldiers, and an unknown number of attempts was made to kidnap civilians. Miraculously, the attempts were unsuccessful. Several attempts have been made this year too. One of them took place just several weeks ago on the Adam-Hizme road and reported by Moshe Cohen, a van driver who works in the regions of Binyamin and Jerusalem.
The Palestinians see the kidnappings as an act that breaks the balance, and speak, either openly or indirectly, of "the right way" to bring the prisoners home and force Israel to release them. The recent deals, including the Schalit deal that involved the release of hundreds of terrorists guilty of the most notorious acts of murder and past kidnappings of soldiers, have only whetted their appetite.
From the Palestinian perspective, the release of prisoners as part of one deal marks the road to the next kidnapping. Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas's military wing, who was killed at the start of Operation Pillar of Defense, spoke about it in public, promising to continue in "the work of kidnapping soldiers and officers — as long as there are Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails." Khaled Mashaal, the head of Hamas's political wing, said openly, "The resistance that succeeded in capturing Gilad Schalit can capture another Schalit until not a single prisoner remains in the enemy's jails."
During the recent riots throughout Judea and Samaria following the death in Megiddo prison of Palestinian prisoner Arafat Jaradat, many of the demonstrators said the same thing to the journalists who interviewed them. Even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas explained "the necessity of working continuously for the release of prisoners from jail by all means," not to mention several prisoners who had already been released.
Wafa al-Bis, who tried to blow herself up at the Erez border crossing in June 2005, called upon the Palestinians "to kidnap another Gilad Schalit every year." Dr. Abed al-Aziz Amr, a member of the group that sent the suicide terrorist who blew himself up at Café Hillel in Jerusalem, said that the practice of kidnapping had proven itself, and persuaded everyone that it was the only way to obtain the release of prisoners. Nasser Yatima, who was involved in sending the suicide terrorist who blew himself up at the Park Hotel in Netanya, said in a radio interview that "the prisoners must be released only by force."
Planning from prison
Israel's prisons hold 4,772 security prisoners. Of these, 522 were sentenced to life terms, 446 to 20 years or more, 452 to 15-20 years, 724 to 10-15 years and the rest to other terms (according to official statistics released by the Maarachot newspaper accurate to early 2012). Today it is obvious to defense establishment officials and heads that the damage caused by the mass release of prisoners in the previous deals has to do with more than just the very real possibility that they will return to terrorist activity (as many of them have done). It also has to do with the fact that the deals, which were successful from the Palestinian point of view, encouraged and increased the motivation of terrorist organizations to carry out another kidnapping.
But there is another insight, and this week the Shin Bet and the IDF decided to make it public and sharpen it. This insight has to do with the non-theoretical possibility — since several incidents of this kind have occurred already — that terrorist groups that focused until now on kidnapping soldiers would try to kidnap civilians.
A new campaign in the school system in Judea and Samaria that began this week calls on young people who live there not to hitchhike for fear that they might be kidnapped. A similar campaign, which includes a video of a fictitious kidnapping, was recently held among soldiers. This time, a video was produced for a civilian audience. It portrays the kidnapping of a boy from a bus stop near one of the settlements. The video, which is being screened in youth movements and schools, shows a boy wearing a skullcap missing the bus, getting into a car, being kidnapped at knifepoint and being thrown bound into a safe house, where he is filmed with a video camera.
The video's purpose was to frighten people, and it worked. But reality, it turns out, is even stronger and more frightening. Only a few months ago, the Shin Bet discovered a terrorist cell that had planned to kidnap Israelis and hold them in a safe house or cave in the village of Hizme north of Jerusalem with intent to obtain the release of Ahmed Sa'adat, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who is imprisoned in Israel. The head of the cell was Rajib Musa Salah a-Din. According to the Shin Bet's information, Salah a-Din's cell tried to ambush Israelis and kidnap them at the Maaleh Adumim junction and near Muchmas in the Judean Desert district.
Another cell belonging to the terrorist group known as the Holy Warriors Battalion, which was also discovered recently, planned, from inside an Israeli prison, to kidnap an Israeli civilian within Israel to use as a bargaining chip for the release of prisoners. The members of this cell are terrorists from Hebron and the Gaza Strip, some of whom have been sentenced to life in prison. The purpose of the kidnapping was to obtain their release.
A race against the clock
Attempts to kidnap civilians have occurred in the past. Several of them ended badly — for example, the kidnapping and murder of Ophir Rahum by Amana Muna, who enticed him over the Internet in the winter of 2001. Muna was deported to Egypt as part of the Schalit deal and now lives in Turkey. But some kidnapping attempts ended better.
S., a Shin Bet interrogator, tells of one of them, by permission. "One day, the team leader called me and asked me to take more troops to arrest a young woman who allegedly took part in the kidnapping of an Israeli civilian," he says.
"It was 4 a.m. on a Sunday. Interrogators, coordinators and members of other units gathered on the outskirts of Ramallah, and when the signal was given, we made the arrest. The young woman's interrogation lasted three hours. She admitted to her part, gave the names of the other cell members who worked with her, and then began a race against time to save the life of the kidnap victim, who was being held in a safe house.
"Shortly afterward, I was driving in my car with a young woman. Beside her was a young fighter who was handcuffed to her. A special force mapped the kidnappers' route. Two days later, an elite team of IDF troops succeeded in finding and arresting them. After a rapid interrogation, we found the place where the kidnap victim was being held. We went to him, taking one of the kidnappers with us — he was handcuffed to us and served as our guide. I remember the eyes of the kidnap victim looking up at us from the hole where he was held. It's hard to forget such a moment."
The major players in the latest unit that planned to kidnap civilians and soldiers, whose discovery was allowed for publication, are Said Jasr and Tawfik Ajbariya of Jenin and Yusef Warda, an Israeli citizen of Qalansuwa. For several days, the members of the cell tried to kidnap soldiers or civilians from bus and train stations throughout the Sharon region and the center of the country. But they did not succeed because the soldiers and civilians refused the ride they offered.
The cell members intended to take the kidnap victim to Jenin using Warda's blue Israeli identity card. From there, they intended to negotiate for his release. The indictment against two members of the terror cell, which was handed down in the Central District Court (in Lod) reveals how easy it is to plan a kidnapping. According to the information in the indictment, on Dec. 30, 2012, Tawfik, Said and another member of the cell caught a taxi to Azun, where they passed through the separation barrier and entered Israeli territory. Later, they caught another taxi to Umm el-Fahm.
The three men met up with the cell's driver in an Isuzu jeep with windows that had been darkened in advance to make the kidnapping easier. At Barta'a, they bought rope and plastic handcuffs for binding the kidnap victim, a knife, fake gun that fired plastic bullets to threaten the kidnap victim, hats to hide their faces from security cameras and gloves to keep them from leaving fingerprints.
They loaded all the equipment into the jeep and began driving through the area of Hadera, the Sharon region, Tel Aviv and Petach Tikvah. At least once, the cell members spoke with a civilian and with a soldier in an attempt to lure them into the car, but without success. They were arrested near the Eyal checkpoint, still in their car, and are now on trial.
Better killed than kidnapped?
Besides being alert and trying to make civilians aware of kidnap attempts for the purpose of obtaining the release of more Palestinian terrorists, IDF officers constantly remind soldiers of the rules at the northern and southern borders and on the roads to prevent another kidnapping like that of Gilad Schalit, with its attendant results. The Operations Department and the military police stage fake kidnap attempts at hitchhiking stations and bus stops to enforce the rules about hitchhiking, which have been tightened over the past few years.
Twenty-five years ago, after the kidnapping of Yosef Fink and Rahamim Alsheich in southern Lebanon, the existence of the Hannibal Directive, a series of acts intended to stop kidnapping attempts, was reported. The procedure included firing at the attackers. The kidnapping of Schalit and the price Israel was asked to pay for his release shook the IDF and the various command echelons, and the Hannibal Directive became a point of contention. Before a battle during Operation Cast Lead, the commander of the Golani Brigade's 51st Battalion ordered his soldiers: "No soldier of the 51st Battalion is to be kidnapped — even if it means he detonates his grenade with the ones who are trying to take him, even if it means that his company fires on the car that they're trying to force him into."
The commanding officer of the Nahal Brigade at the time, Col. Motti Baruch, spoke in the same spirit when he said, "The unequivocal message is that no soldier falls into captivity." Two high-ranking commanders gave expression to a sort of oral tradition, which many officers favored, by which a soldier is better killed than kidnapped. In the wake of a protest by Professor Assaf Kasher, one of the authors of the IDF's code of ethics, and the uproar that the statements caused, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said during a meeting of the IDF's operational forum that the Hannibal Directive did not allow a soldier to be killed to prevent him from being kidnapped. Gantz said that every attempt must be made to prevent a kidnapping, even if such attempts endangered the life of the kidnapped soldier, but the soldier must not be harmed deliberately.
At any rate, the force with which the "question of the prisoners" has arisen once again in Palestinian society stretches to the maximum the boundaries of effort and alertness to prevent the kidnapping of both soldiers and civilians. Former GOC Central Command Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrahi said only a few days ago, against the backdrop of the escalation evident on the ground, that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of kidnapping attempts and the amount of effort that the Palestinian terrorist groups were putting into them. Mizrahi said that since November alone, the IDF and the Shin Bet had prevented 18 such attempts. Some of the attempts were prevented thanks to civilians' alertness, and defense establishment officials hope that luck and the ability to prevent such attempts will prove themselves in the future as well.