27 April 1999
Three central Hamas activists who security sources say were involved in the
1996 suicide bombings, causing the deaths of 58 people, were released from
a Gaza prison last week on the orders of Palestinian Authority Chairman
Yousuf Abu-Hin and Tito Masud were arrested by the PA in April 1996 and had
been detained since then without trial. The two were joined six months ago
by Mahmoud Abu-Hin. Sources say the three planned and orchestrated at least
four attacks in February and March of 1996 – two explosions of bus 18 in
Jerusalem, an explosion in Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv and an explosion at
the Ashkelon junction.
The release is a calculated move by Arafat on two fronts, according to
reliable security sources.
Arafat is trying to gain Hamas’s support for postponing the declaration
of a state, and to prevent a challenge to his presidency. The security sources
estimate that the release of Hamas members does not signal a “green light” to a
renewed wave of attacks, but signals the contrary: Arafat expects that in
return, Hamas will refrain from any attacks until after the Israeli elections.
Another reason for the release, the sources say, is Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu’s refusal to release Palestinian security prisoners held in Israel.
According to information received by Israel, Arafat decided to release the
Hamas members also because he believes Israel owes him for his efforts to
thwart terrorist attacks, including the massive attack that had been
planned for Tel Aviv. The gradual amassing of explosives for the attack was
uncovered by the PA two months ago.
Most of the attacks were foiled as a result of information transferred by
the Shin Bet internal security service to the Palestinians.
The sources say that Arafat concluded, based on Netanyahu’s recent behaviour
and an assessment of the position of the United States, that the prime
minister would not be able to respond severely to the release of the three.
The three terrorists belonged to a group of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic
Jihad activists headed by Mohammed Daf. They cooperated on five revenge
attacks following the killing of the “Engineer,” Yihye Ayash, on Jan. 5, 1996.
Military Intelligence learned before Ayash’s assassination that
extremist Islamic organizations planned to carry out attacks after the PA
elections, which were held Jan. 20. Ayash’s killing provided another
incentive to recruit suicide bombers, but did not cause the attacks.
The three Hamas members are now expected to go back to the top of the list
of Israel’s most wanted.