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Questions linger over Hamas’ role in West Bank kidnapping that led to Gaza war

This combination of images released by the Israel Defense Forces shows Israeli teens Eyal Yifrah, 19, left, Gilad Shaar, 16, center, and 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship, Naftali Fraenkel. Israeli special forces stormed a West Bank hideout early on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014, and killed two Palestinians suspected in the June abduction and slaying of the three teenagers, a gruesome attack that had triggered a chain of events that led to the war in Gaza this summer. (AP Photo/Israel Defense Forces, File)
This combination of images released by the Israel Defense Forces shows Israeli teens Eyal Yifrah, 19, left, Gilad Shaar, 16, center, and 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship, Naftali Fraenkel. Israeli special forces stormed a West Bank hideout early on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014, and killed two Palestinians suspected in the June abduction and slaying of the three teenagers, a gruesome attack that had triggered a chain of events that led to the war in Gaza this summer. (AP Photo/Israel Defense Forces, File) AP

After the killing Sept. 23 of two Palestinians suspected of kidnapping and fatally shooting three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank in June, Israeli officials declared the closure of a case that shook Israel and triggered a series of events that culminated in a 50-day war with Hamas in Gaza.

What remains unclear, however, is what role, if any, the militant Islamist group Hamas played in the abductions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Hamas of responsibility for the kidnapping, then began a harsh crackdown that led to the worst eruption of Palestinian-Israeli violence in years.

Hundreds of suspected Hamas operatives were arrested in the sweep, which led to a flare-up of hostilities across the Gaza-Israel border that in turn escalated into the war that was halted by a cease-fire a month ago. The conflict left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead and also killed 72 Israelis and a foreign worker.

Now it’s questionable that Hamas as an organization had anything to do with the original kidnapping.

An Israeli indictment submitted this month against the alleged ringleader of the kidnappers suggests the abduction plot was hatched by a local cell in the West Bank city of Hebron. Statements by Hamas political chief Khaled Mashal also indicate the leadership of the organization was not party to the abduction plot.

The kidnapping on June 12 came at an awkward time for Hamas. Ten days earlier it had agreed to form a unity government with the more moderate Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu objected to the unity government and seized upon the kidnapping as proof that Abbas' deal with Hamas had buried hopes for peace. Israel considers Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel, a terrorist organization.

The accused organizer of the attack, who is in Israeli custody, and one of the suspected kidnappers belong to the Qawasmeh clan in Hebron, some of whose members were known to be Hamas activists involved in attacks on Israelis. Yet the indictment describes the kidnappers as acting on their own, not on orders from the Hamas leadership.

According to the charges submitted to an Israeli military court on Sept. 4, the idea for the abduction emerged from a meeting between the alleged organizer, Husam Qawasmeh,, and Marwan Qawasmeh, one of the suspected kidnappers, who said he wanted to "take action" to free Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.

Marwan Qawasmeh had been arrested previously for activities in Hamas, confessing under interrogation that he had been recruited by the armed wing of the organization in the Hebron area, according to Israeli security officials.

"Marwan offered (Husam) to join him in abducting a Jew in order to bring about the release of the Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel," the indictment says. "The defendant agreed."

According to the charges, Husam Qawasmeh was in charge of logistics. He contacted his brother, a Hamas operative and former prisoner expelled to the Gaza Strip, to obtain funds for purchase of cars and weapons to be used in the abduction.

The brother, who works for the Nur Association, a Hamas group that provides financial aid to families of prisoners and others killed in the conflict with Israel, transferred the requested funds to the West Bank, the indictment said.

Marwan Qawasmeh recruited Amer Abu Aisheh as an accomplice in the kidnapping. Abu Aisheh was a former prisoner whose brother was killed in 2005 while trying to hurl an explosive device at soldiers, according to the Israeli security officials.

After picking up the Israeli teenagers, who were hitchhiking home from their schools in the West Bank, the kidnappers decided to kill them when they resisted orders to keep silent, shooting them in the back seat of the Palestinians' car, the indictment said.

The bodies of the three youths - Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gil-Ad Shaer, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel,16 - were later buried and concealed in a plot of land owned by Husam Qawasmeh.

In his initial statement assigning blame for the kidnapping, Netanyahu said it was carried out by "members of Hamas." Later Netanyahu pointed a finger at Hamas as a whole. "Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay," he said after the bodies of the three youths were found on June 30 as violence escalated across the Gaza frontier.

Khaled Mashal, the political leader of Hamas, initially refused to confirm or deny his group's responsibility for the kidnapping. But in an interview with Yahoo News on August 22, he described the abduction as a locally organized initiative of Hamas operatives.

"As a Hamas leadership, we were not aware of this action taken by this group of Hamas members in advance," he said. "We learned about these confessions from the Israeli investigationThe Hamas political leadership was not aware of all these details. We learned about it later on."

Another Hamas leader in exile, Saleh al-Arouri, said days earlier that the abduction had been carried out by members of Hamas's armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, but he did not comment on whether the action was coordinated with the group's leadership.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman, said it did not matter whether the kidnappers had acted on specific orders from Hamas leaders, because the leadership has consistently called for the kidnapping of Israelis to trade them for Palestinian prisoners.

Israel freed more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in 2011 in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier seized by Hamas and held captive in the Gaza Strip for more than five years.

"This is the spirit of Hamas," he said. "There is no need for a specific order."

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