- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

LONDON — Israeli officials say they have foiled a plan by Hamas terrorists to kill a group of Israeli soldiers and then try to exchange their heads for detained Hamas prisoners.

The purported plot was revealed as Israeli security forces broke up three major “terrorist” cells funded by a Hamas office in Damascus, Syria, according to a statement issued by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s media adviser, Arnon Perlman.

Twenty-two of the Hamas members said to have been involved are under arrest. The same men had been imprisoned and released for previous “secret terrorism,” according to the Israeli statement, which was e-mailed to journalists on Tuesday.

But the operation leader, Sheik Ibrahim Hamad, 40, is still at large. Secret service officials from Shin Bet told Ha’aretz newspaper that he had dispatched the suicide terrorists to Jerusalem’s Moment and Hillel cafes and to the attack on a nightclub in Rishon Letzion, killing scores of Israeli Jews and some Israeli Arabs.

Mr. Perlman’s statement said a plan prepared by one of the three cells called for Majdi Nousan, a garbage-truck driver, to stage a road accident in hopes of ambushing any Israeli patrol that stopped at the scene.

The cell members decided to keep only three bodies and take just the heads from the others because there would not have been enough room in the getaway car to keep all the bodies.

Although roadside holes were dug and equipment purchased, three attempts at the garbage-truck ruse failed — possibly because no Israeli patrol stopped at the scene.

The statement said Israeli security forces were impressed by the sophisticated preparation and planning — and the financing — of the three cells.

“Their attacks were characterized by precise preparation, including intelligence gathering and advance tours, vis-a-vis both civilian and military targets,” Mr. Perlman’s statement said. “The cells operated strike, warning and rescue forces,” he added.

Using tens of thousands of dollars from Damascus, the cells had acquired war materiel, vehicles and cellular telephones, he said.

The Israeli media adviser identified the main link between the Ramallah-based groups and their headquarters in Damascus as Khaldon Ruhi Atspor Barghouti, 30, who originally was from Syria. The statement said he had transferred large sums of money from the headquarters.

It also said another arrested man, Yunis Ali Mohammed Masaid, 28, previously had been a member of Palestinian Military Intelligence.

The Israelis have been eager to publicize links between terrorist cells and organs of the Palestinian Authority, most of which report to Yasser Arafat, the authority’s chairman.

The bulk of the arrested cell members, however, were described in the statement as experienced Hamas operatives. Hamas is the largest of the hard-line groups operating against Israel, but some of its members have joined the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and operate alongside members of Mr. Arafat’s dominant Fatah movement.

Among the reported victims of the three cells are a woman and three men who were killed in roadside ambushes. Other attacks were directed against soldiers.

As a result of the interrogations, Israeli security forces on Sunday uncovered a cache including four AK-47s, two M-16s, two pistols, a Baretta submachine gun, 15 magazines for M-16s and AK-47s, thousands of 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm bullets, binoculars, rubber gloves and material to wrap weapons.

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