Anatomy of a manhunt
Op-ed: Despite lack of intelligence information, exceptional probe led to arrest of Itamar killers
Intelligence information was lacking, but the tracks, the IDF’s massive presence in Awarta, exceptional cooperation between the various security arms, and traces left behind by the terrorists led to the arrests of the two Palestinians who murdered a whole family in Itamar.
The effort to solve this case was unusual in at least one respect: There was no intelligence information pointing to potential suspects, unlike other terror attacks in Judea and Samaria in recent years. This time, the Shin Bet and IDF had no indicators, and therefore army forces and Shin Bet investigators had to be deployed massively in order to produce information that would enable authorities to reach the killers.
The manhunt for the suspects, which ended in recent days, got underway at 1 am, about an hour after the Fogel family was massacred. An IDF tracker examined Itamar’s fence and spotted slight indications that the two killers climbed it. Initially they attempted to cut the fence, but ultimately changed their mind, either because their equipment didn’t work properly, or because they feared that the fence would electrocute them.
After crossing the fence, the killers entered a home where they found an M-16 rifle. From there they continued to the Fogel family home. After murdering the parents, Udi and Ruth, and the children, Yoav, Elad and Hadas, they climbed the fence and fled. The tracker, accompanied by an IDF force, followed the tracks left by the killers to one of the streets in the nearby village of Awarta. The tracks disappeared there. However, the killers left various signs behind that made it easier for the police to confirm their identity after they were nabbed.
The moment it became clear that the murderers headed to Awarta, and based on equipment they disposed of on the way, the IDF embarked on a major detention operation. Following the search in village homes, dozens of detainees were brought into the interrogation room. Overall, hundreds of village residents, out of a total population of 8,000, were arrested. Some of them were released after an initial probe while others were detained again by the Shin Bet. Meanwhile, the IDF maintained its presence in the village, embarking on searches and questioning residents in different parts of Awarta.
The Shin Bet’s interrogations produced various leads. Slowly, the circle of potential suspects was narrowed. At this stage, the IDF’s elite Duvdevan Unit and the police’s undercover unit came into the picture and carried out secret arrests of suspects. These arrests produced more intelligence information. One of the killers was detained early on, but said nothing. He started to cooperate only after more information was gathered that pointed to him.
IDF operations, including the arrests of many Awarta residents and the uncovering of various other findings, enabled the Shin Bet to focus its interrogations and identity the killers. The police’s forensics unit and undercover forces also contributed greatly to the investigation’s success. The pressure exerted on the local population during the manhunt produced the intelligence that ultimately facilitated the successful conclusion.
The IDF did not enlist the help of the Palestinian Authority, as was done in previous cases, because to begin with it was clear that the PA’s security services had no substantive information.
While the killers were affiliated with the Popular Front, security officials estimate that they did not carry out the murder on the group’s orders, but rather, based on nationalistic motives. However, after committing the crime, their families and Popular Front members enlisted to the cause of helping them. In recent months officials are seeing more intelligence warnings pertaining to the Poplar Front in Judea and Samaria, after a long lull.
Given the fact that early in the investigation the Shin Bet, IDF and police did not possess intelligence information, the rapid pace of the probe should be lauded. Indeed, we can assume that the exceptional cooperation between Israel’s various security arms contributed to the killers’ quick arrest.