Home demolition case provides alleged link between Gaza campaign, murdered teens

McClatchy Foreign StaffAugust 8, 2014 

— Ghada El-Hemouni is an all but unnoticed figure in the bloodshed that has claimed nearly 2,000 lives as Israel and Hamas battle in the Gaza Strip.

A 38-year-old mother of seven, El-Hemouni hasn’t been to her home in a month. Now the Israeli government has ordered it demolished _ retribution for the role El-Hemouni’s husband, Hossam Qawasmeh, allegedly played in the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens on June 12. It was those disappearances that touched off a crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank that led to Hamas firing rockets into Israel, which sparked the Israeli military campaign that has cost the lives of more than 1,800 Palestinians and 67 Israelis.

If El-Hemouni feels any responsibility for her family’s role in the death and destruction of the past six weeks, it does not show. Her husband, she says, is innocent; Israel was just looking for an excuse.

“He has been a peaceful person, and for 11 years he was not arrested,” El-Hemouni said of her husband, who was imprisoned from 1995-2002 for involvement in Hamas. “He was summoned sometimes for questioning, but we went to Mecca, we did the Umrah, they gave us a chance to visit his brothers. Now our lives are upside down.”

She continued: “The Israelis wanted a pretext. They didn’t have to wait for a kidnapping to take place. Israel wants any pretext to kill and demolish in Gaza.”

Shortly after the disappearance of the three Israeli teens _ Eyal Yifrah, 19, Naftali Fraenkel,16, and Gil-Ad Shaer, 16 _ Israel’s Shin Bet security force had named two men as the likely perpetrators, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisheh. Both Marwan Qawasmeh and Aisheh were last seen on the day the three teenagers vanished, and their whereabouts remain unknown.

Hossam Qawasmeh, however, was arrested nearly a month ago and held in secret until this past week, when his name surfaced in an Israeli court file as the government justified the order that his family home be leveled.

What that court filing alleged, if accurate, provides the critical link between the disappearance of the Jewish teens and the campaign in Gaza _ that Gaza Hamas leaders provided the money to arrange the teens’ kidnappings.

That is what Hossam Qawasmeh, 40, told Israeli authorities after he was arrested, the court documents allege.

According to the court documents, Hossam Qawasmeh was the commander of the kidnapping. The money he received from Hamas in Gaza was used to buy weapons, which he gave to Marwan Qawasmeh.

The bodies of the three Israelis were found on June 30 on land that belonged to Hossam Qawasmeh. According to the court papers, Hossam Qawasmeh disappeared after the bodies were found. Israel says he was arrested July 11 in Anata, on his way to Jordan.

El-Hemouni said the couple was visiting family in Anata, a Palestinian town north of Jerusalem, when Hossam Qawasmeh was arrested.

Israel issued demolition orders for the homes of all three suspects, marking a return to a policy that the military had abandoned in 2005. Families of the three suspects have appealed the demolitions to Israel’s Supreme Court; a decision is expected in the coming days.

El-Hemouni said her husband, a tile layer, had little time outside of his physically demanding work and his family. El-Hemouni said she never met Marwan Qawasmeh, whose relationship to Hossam is unclear, or Amer Abu Aisheh. After the kidnapping, she said, Hossam Qawasmeh was surprised that the Israeli murder victims were found on his property.

But if Hossam Qawasmeh is proven guilty, he will join a long line of Qawasmehs who have spearheaded the resistance against Israel – including his immediate relatives. His brother Hussein is serving a life sentence for planning a 2011 bombing in Jerusalem that killed a British tourist. His brother Mahmoud was exiled to Gaza, where he is serving time. Two brothers have been killed by Israel. And Hossam Qawasmeh is a distant relative of Abdullah Qawasmeh, a Hamas military chief assassinated in 2003 in Hebron.

Four weeks ago, Abdullah Qawasmeh’s widow told McClatchy that the family had changed and no longer supported Hamas. This week, several members of the family were outspoken in their praise for the Islamist movement.

Abdullah Qawasmeh’s brother, electrician Mohammed Qawasmeh, spoke to McClatchy at home while serving grapes and plums from his land – land he said was fertile and therefore probably coveted by Israel.

“The Palestinian government has been negotiating for 20 years, and from 100,000 settlers today there are half a million,” he said. “Hamas does not steal the funding it receives. Hamas takes care of its people.”

Mohammed Elias Abu Aisheh, the uncle of suspect Amer Abu Aisheh, was similarly open about his affiliation with Hamas. He spoke while walking around his nephew’s apartment, which Israel gutted in the days after the three Jewish victims were found.

“Hamas means protecting my country,” the uncle said. “I’m usually a moderate man, but now I hate Israel.”

Hamas has distanced itself from the kidnapping of the three Israeli youths. The confession of Hossam Qawasmeh, if proven true, would suggest otherwise.

Barak Ben-Zur, former head of the Shin Bet security service research division, said the kidnapping of Israelis is a Hamas trademark, even if this operation did not follow a specific order from the movement. Ben-Zur pointed to a speech by Hamas’ leader, Khaled Mashaal, in May in Doha, Qatar, in which he swore that despite reconciling with its more moderate rival movement, Fatah, Hamas would continue the armed struggle against Israel, including capturing Israelis to exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

“The reconciliation does not mean an end to our resistance against the invaders, resistance will continue as long as the occupation exists,” Mashaal said in Doha.

Three days after her husband was arrested, El-Hemouni said, the army called her to warn that the family home would be demolished. The couple built their home “stone by stone,” she said, with large arched windows looking out in each direction, from the luscious backyard fig trees to the olive trees growing in terraces across a small valley. She and relatives hurried to remove everything, from furniture to windows to doors. Now she is living with their children in one room at her in-laws.

Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst specializing in Hamas at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tanks, said he saw a direct line between the crackdown of Hamas in the West Bank and the rocket attack Hamas launched from Gaza that touched off Operation Protective Edge.

“It goes to affirm that ultimately, whatever deal you reach on a cease-fire, whatever improvements you offer for Gaza, there is no stable cease-fire only between Israel and Gaza,” he said. “At the end of the day, Palestinians are going to respond in Gaza to things that happen in the West Bank. . . . There’s a lot of truth to that notion that this whole Gaza war started in the West Bank.”

Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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