Israel Defense Forces began a campaign of retribution against Hamas targets in Gaza on Monday after troops found the murdered bodies of three teenage boys abducted last month near their settlement of Gush Etzion.
But the Hamas commander who is seen by Israel as responsible for a wave of kidnapping attempts in the West Bank is actually based in Turkey. Saleh al-Arouri, that senior Hamas operative, makes his home inside the territory of a NATO ally.
“The Israelis say he was one of the key operational leaders who has been calling for and overseeing these various kidnapping plots over the past two years,” said Matthew Levitt, the director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism & Intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s not that he was necessarily on the phone with these kidnappers, but kidnapping in general has been a key focus for Hamas operatives in the last two years and al-Arouri has been encouraging it.”
Now that the man who Israel believes has significant responsibility for the murder of the three teenagers is in Turkey, it could further complicate relations between Ankara and Jerusalem, two former allies that have tried recently to repair a broken relationship.
Turkey has cooperated at times with Israel and the West on contingency planning for Syria during its civil war. But the Turks also maintain close ties to the political wing of Hamas, a group Israel and the United States still designate as a terrorist organization. Indeed, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmed Davutaglu, on Monday talked to Khalled Meshall, the head of the Hamas political bureau, in a telephone call.
Senior Israeli officials confirmed for The Daily Beast that al-Arouri is the Hamas leader who has encouraged, funded and coordinated a campaign to ramp up kidnappings in the West Bank and that al-Arouri now resides in Turkey. Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president for research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said, "al-Arouri is a senior Hamas figure with a logistical, operational and financial role in the group's activities in the West Bank. Any attack that takes place in the West Bank will ultimately raise questions about his involvement."
Israeli security services last month named two Palestinian Hamas activists, Amer abu Aysha and Marwan Qawasmeh, as the prime suspects in the kidnapping of Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Shaar, the three Israeli teenagers who were found dead under a pile of stones in an open field near Hebron. But the mastermind of the Hamas kidnapping strategy is al-Arouri, Israeli officials say. These officials, however, are loath to talk about him on the record.
Yaakov Amidror, who stepped down as Netanyahu’s national security adviser in November, gave this typically Israeli response when asked about him Tuesday by The Daily Beast: “Anyone who knows something about Arouri will not tell you because it’s intelligence that should not be published and is needed for the future.”
The Times of Israel last month reported that Israel’s security services said al-Arouri has “urged West Bank operatives incessantly to set up terror cells and perpetrate kidnappings.” A further clue that the Israelis blame al-Arouri for the teenagers’ kidnappings came on June 20 when Israeli military vehicles demolished the family home of al-Arouri outside Ramallah.
Since the kidnappings of the three boys, Hamas spokesmen have denied any role in the operation while also praising it. However, in April, Hamas’ prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, said capturing Israeli soldiers was a top priority.
The three teenagers were not IDF soldiers, but kidnapping attempts in general are on the rise. Since the beginning of 2013, according to IDF statistics, the Israelis thwarted 64 kidnapping attempts, most of them by Hamas.
Kidnappings have also proven to be a successful strategy for Hamas. In 2011, Israel exchanged 1,027 Palestinians with Hamas for the return of Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier who was abducted while on patrol in Gaza, after the government withdrew all settlers from the strip of land now controlled by Hamas.
The Israelis released al-Arouri a year before that deal from administrative detention but only on the condition that he leave the Palestinian territories for at least three years. In 2011 the Israeli press reported that al-Arouri helped negotiate the prisoner exchange that led to the release of Shalit.
Now al-Arouri is in Turkey and that complicates the Jewish state’s already tricky relationship with that country. In 2010 after Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish flotilla and killed nine activists aboard, Turkey cut all diplomatic ties with Israel. Since then President Obama has tried to repair the relationship between the two former allies. But the relationship has soured. In 2012, for example, Turkey’s intelligence chief gave the names of Iranian agents working with the Mossad to the Iranian government.
Last March, in Obama’s first visit to Israel as president, he came close to a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey when Netanyahu called Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and apologized for the incident just as Obama was boarding Air Force One. It wasn’t enough to restore the once-close relationship. But Israel and Turkey have worked with the United States and Syria’s neighbors on contingency plans around the civil war in that country.
Now, however, any plans for cooperation have suddenly grown very, very complex.
“Hamas is a pure terrorist organization that should not be hosted by countries like Turkey,” Amidror told The Daily Beast. “It’s very sad that the people in the hierarchy of this organization are in Turkey now. It’s sad that Turkey does not renounce clearly the acts of this organization.”