HEBRON, West Bank — Marwan Qawasmeh, a 29-year-old barber from one of Hebron’s oldest families, used to live in a complex with his father, two brothers, their wives and all their children.
Today, Qawasmeh is missing, hunted by Israeli authorities as one of two suspects in the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers whose disappearances and deaths now threaten to inflame the harsh revenge-driven violence that has caused so much bloodshed and defies efforts at negotiation.
On Saturday, Israeli authorities announced that a Palestinian teenager who was kidnapped a day after the three teenagers were buried had been burned alive by his abductors _ news that can only make a tense situation worse. Here, even before the news that Muhammad Abu Khdeir was still alive when he was set on fire, bitterness hung in the air.
Qawasmeh’s home, too, is gone. Israeli soldiers, said Qawasmeh’s sister, left Marwan’s family no time to remove canisters of cooking gas before they detonated explosives, causing a fiery blast that blew out walls and windows across the complex.
The upstairs exterior walls are gone, the walls scorched, the cracked first-floor ceiling held up with poles. Every ceramic toilet and sink has been hacked into pieces. Outside, a lush fig tree rises behind the house, its roots buried in hunks of concrete, clothing, and a flat screen TV. A bed is lodged in the debris.
On Wednesday, a dozen relatives filtered in and out of the courtyard, resting after two days clearing rubble.
“My brothers are not fighters,” said the sister, referring not just to Marwan, but also to Bilal and Shereef, both of whom were arrested and are now in an Israeli jail. “Marwan is married, he has a wife, and his wife is pregnant. It’s impossible to do this now. He is not a member of Hamas.”
Marwan’s uncle Hilme Qawasmeh said local children, not the family, had placed a green Hamas flag on the roof.
Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner scoffed at the assertion of Qawasmeh’s innocence. Marwan Qawasmeh has been jailed five times for his involvement in Hamas, Lerner said. He admitted in previous arrests to being a member of Hamas and to using the caves around Hebron for militant training.
Lerner said the military had not exposed all the evidence pointing to Marwan Qawasmeh and his fellow suspect, Amer Abu Aisheh, also a Hebron resident, whom Israel says is a Hamas operative as well. Neither have been seen since the June 12 kidnapping of the three teenagers, who were hitchhiking home from their religious schools when they were kidnapped. Their bodies were discovered 18 days later, under piles of rock in a field.
Lerner said the military was searching Qawasmeh’s house for evidence when the home was destroyed. The explosions that devastated it he described as “breaching the outer perimeter” of the residence to allow for easier searching.
Opposition to Israel is a long Qawasmeh tradition.
One person walking through the ruins was Umm Ayman Qawasmeh, widowed in 2003 when Israeli soldiers assassinated her husband. Abdullah Qawasmeh was a Hamas military chief who planned out fatal attacks against Israelis.
Umm Ayman said the scene reminded her of when she faced frequent, grueling raids by the Israeli army. But once her husband died, she said she changed. She sent her three daughters and three sons to school and urged them to marry young to reduce the chance of them becoming militants.
“My husband was a wanted man for many years,” said Umm Ayman, whose daughter is married to one of Marwan’s brothers in a relationship typical of extended families in the West Bank. “I wanted my children to live a different life.”
Umm Ayman said her eldest son, Ayman, 22, was arrested Monday _ the fifth time, even though she said he is not guilty. Being a Qawasmeh is a mark of Cain, she said.
Besides Umm Ayman’s late husband Abdulla, in 2003, Mahmoud Qawasmeh blew himself up on a bus in Haifa. Fuad Qawasmeh killed a Jewish couple in a suicide attack in Hebron. Hamza Qawasmeh opened fire in a Jewish settlement. All in all, nine Qawasmehs have been killed for attacking Israelis.
Hebron University political scientist Asad El-Ewaiwi said he doubted the family has changed.
“I don’t believe these Qawasmehs are not Hamas, but they are in a difficult situation,” he said. “They are in panic because Hamas is being targeted.”
After Eyal Yifrah, 19, Naftali Fraenkel, 16, and Gilad Shaer, 16, disappeared June 12, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid the blame on Hamas and pledged to destroy its infrastructure in the West Bank. The army arrested more than 400 people, mostly members of Hamas. Among the arrested were 56 people released in the 2011 prisoner swap for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The arrests bring the total number of Palestinian prisoners in Israel to more than 5,500, including about 370 in administrative detention.
Hamas Prime Minister Khaled Mashal said his movement has no connection to the triple murder, but military spokesman Lerner said it didn’t matter.
“In the last year and a half there were almost 60 attempts to abduct Israelis,” in the West Bank, Lerner said. “Hamas does not need to give a direct order [for a kidnapping].”
Al-Ewaiwi, the political scientist, said Hamas is treading a delicate balance of maintaining its dwindling allies and keeping its reputation of fighting Israel.
“Hamas was surprised by the kidnapping,” El-Ewaiwi said. Before the abduction, Hamas was on a slow recovery after years of financial losses resulting from the loss of longtime help from Egypt, Syria and Iran and was eager for a chance to recuperate. Hamas moved its headquarters from Syria to Qatar and scrambled to close gaping holes in its budget in the Gaza Strip, where it governs.
Days before the teens went missing, Hamas joined a unity government with rival, moderate Fatah movement, ending a seven-year rift. For the first time since the factions split, Hamas members could walk the West Bank without fear of getting arrested by the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority. At the same time, hardline rivals charged that by working with Fatah, seen as collaborating with Israel, Hamas was selling out. The kidnapping could have been an act of mutiny, Al-Ewaiwi said.
Political scientist Mukhaimar Abusaada of Al-Azhar University in Gaza City doubted that. Too short a time had passed between the formation of a unity government and the abduction. Rather, he guessed, the kidnappers hoped to ransom their captives for Palestinian prisoners. Dozens of Palestinian prisoners were in their second month of a hunger strike when the teens went missing, protesting the policy of administrative detention, whereby Israel holds Palestinian prisoners for up to six months without showing them the charges against them. The captors did not need a direct order from Hamas to act.
Abusaada said Hamas’s distancing from the crime was a message to Qatar and to Turkey, another ally.
“I don’t think Qatar would allow such an incident to happen and keep Meshal in the capital,” Abusaada said. All the same, Hamas could not publicly denounce the murders. “There are radical groups waiting for Hamas to do such a thing. They would use that against Hamas, to say Hamas is no longer a resistance group fighting Israel.”
Back at the home, the Qawasmehs spoke bitterly as they took stock of the damage. The detonation in the home of the suspects marks a return to a policy Israel abandoned in 2005. Israel says demolishing homes of militants is a deterrent to others. Palestinian advocates say the policy is collective punishment. Marwan was one of 16 residents in the apartment complex, where three of four homes are uninhabitable.
Army spokesman Lerner said the damage to the homes was due to a search for weapons and evidence, not a deliberate demolition. However, he added that the gruesome triple murder justified extreme measures.
“This is an extreme, severe situation that cannot be tolerated on any level,” Lerner told McClatchy. “There is extensive rule of law but these people have no regard for human life.”
The Qawasmeh family had similar mistrust for the Israelis. Another relative, Muhammed, said the kidnapping is a ruse.
“In Hebron people don’t believe the kidnapping took place,” he said. “This is all political maneuvering on the part of the Israelis.”
Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.