x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Eleven Hamas suspects held over 'suicide attacks plot'

Palestinian forces arrest militants and seize arms, unravelling plot to launch wave of attacks against both Palestinian and Israeli targets.

JERUSALEM // Palestinian security forces have arrested 11 suspected Hamas militants in connection with a plot to launch a wave of attacks against Palestinian and Israeli targets in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

The group is thought to be a cell of the Islamist group's militant wing, the Al Qassam Brigades, based in Nablus. Jibrin al Bakri, the governor of Nablus, said the group planned to assassinate him and launch suicide attacks in Jerusalem.

Security services of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs the West Bank, arrested two of the suspects on Friday, Mr al Bakri said. Following their interrogations, PA security rounded up nine more and confiscated what he described as the group's large cache of weapons and a vehicle laden with explosives. Mr al Bakri said the vehicle was bound for Jerusalem and was to be used as a suicide bomb.

"They had a car that was packed with explosives but, fortunately, we confiscated the explosive, their weapons, all their money," Mr al Bakri said. He said they had been planning the operation for "three or four months", though he did not know when it was to take place.

The Palestinian news agency, Maan, reported yesterday that the cell planned to kidnap Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Citing anonymous Palestinian officials, it said the plot aimed to undermine the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has opposed the recently resumed talks. In August, on the eve of the talks, the group claimed responsibility for gunning down four Israeli settlers near Hebron.

A Hamas official declined to comment yesterday.

Israeli officials have warned about a potential surge in Hamas violence in the West Bank. Co-ordination between Israeli and PA security forces had led to steep declines in violence in the past few years.

But Hamas had "big efforts to rebuild its infrastructure in the West Bank to carry out attacks in Israel. This is a very dangerous development we are facing", the British newspaper The Guardian reported an anonymous Israeli security official as saying. A Palestinian security official confirmed this yesterday, according to a report in the English-language version of Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli daily.

"Hamas is trying to mobilise sleeper cells, but we have been successful in thwarting all of their attempts so far," the official told the newspaper.

In 2007, Hamas forcibly wrested control of Gaza from the Palestinian factions that run the PA in the West Bank. Since then, PA security forces are reported to have arrested hundreds of Hamas officials and supporters in the West Bank.

Mr al Bakri said there was concern that the foiled attack was further evidence of Hamas's strategy to weaken the PA's hold on the West Bank. "I think they want to do to the West Bank what they did in Gaza," he said, "which is attack the Palestinian Authority and the place that it controls, the West Bank."