Hamas’s Role in Kidnapping of Israeli Teens Remains Murky

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Palestinians raise Hamas flags on the top of what remains of the house of Hussam Qawasmeh. Photo: HAZEM BADER/AFP/Getty Images

Hussam Qawasmeh, the alleged mastermind of the plot to kidnap three Israeli teenagers from the West Bank in June, was indicted on Thursday, and while newly released court documents shed more light on the murders, it's still unclear if top Hamas leaders were aware of the plan. The Israeli government blamed Hamas after the three teens — Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, Naftali Frankel, 16 — were found dead, which led to the 50-day war this summer. According to the New York Times, the documents allege that the kidnapping was planned and executed by Qawasmeh and other members of a Hamas-affiliated clan in Hebron, but provide no evidence of a direct connection to the organization's top leaders.

According to the documents, the kidnapping was carried out by one of Qawasmeh's relatives and an accomplice, who are both still at large. It appears they were looking for an Israeli to hold hostage in an effort to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. On June 12, they picked up the three students from a hitchhiking stop. The documents say that the kidnappers hadn't planned to take three people, and weren't prepared when the teens "refused to give in to their fate or to listen to the kidnappers’ instructions." Haaretz reports that Qawasmeh told Israeli interrogators that when the kidnappers reported back to him, they said, "We wanted to kidnap one but we got three. We messed up. We killed them." The boys were shot and buried in a shallow grave on land owned by Qawasmeh.

The only potential connection to Hamas leadership uncovered so far is the $60,000 Qawasmeh obtained for the kidnapping from his brother Mahmoud, who works for the association Al-Nour, which is believed to belong to Hamas. The money's exact origin is unclear, and an Israeli security official said the local group requested money for a "military operation," without describing their plan. They money was used to buy two cars and four guns used in the kidnapping.

Hamas leaders have called the kidnapping a "heroic operation," but several have claimed they were not aware of it beforehand. A senior Israeli government official argued that they were right to blame Hamas, even if its leaders didn't plan the kidnapping. "These people in Hebron are known Hamas activists, and it is clear that Hamas leaders have called on their people to carry out kidnappings — that was the message coming from the leadership," the official said. "And it is still possible that we will find evidence of a direct connection."