HEBRON — In the southern Palestinian city of Hebron, neighbors give the home of the Qawasmeh family a wide berth.
Since the kidnapping of three teens on June 12, Israeli soldiers and police have been seen regularly coming and going from the family’s multilevel home. On Monday, soon after bodies of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel, and Eyal Yifrach were discovered in a nearby field, soldiers scoured the place, destroying parts of it as they searched for clues as to where Marwan Qawashmeh, 29, and Amar Abu Aisha, 32, had fled after killing the three teenagers.
“It is surprising, but not very surprising,” said Amr Ibrahimi, a neighbor who has known the family for decades. He confirmed that Abu Aisha has ties to the Qawasmeh family through marriage and through his mother’s family. “They always had their own strong political opinions, but nobody thought right now there would be an escalation like this.”
The family, once considered a bedrock of Hamas in the southern West Bank, has been named by Israeli intelligence agencies as being behind several of the second intifada’s most grisly suicide bombings. When Israeli authorities said family members were the main suspects behind the kidnapping of the young men, it was taken as evidence that Hamas, too, was behind their disappearance.
In the two weeks since the teens were taken, more than 240 Palestinians have been arrested, many of them with alleged ties to Hamas. On Tuesday, as the burials of the three kidnapped teens were underway, Israel’s security cabinet met and discussed what further blows could be dealt to Hamas in response to the kidnapping.
“This is just a reminder that Hamas is a cruel terrorist organization that sent 100 suicide bombers, terrorists, into Israel in the past, and has now executed three teenagers, three young boys,” said Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of intelligence.
There have been reports of Palestinian taxi drivers and shopkeepers being attacked in Jerusalem, as Israeli police warned that extremist groups may try to launch price tag attacks to take revenge on the death of the three teens.
But Israeli intelligence officers said they have not been able to find any evidence of a well-planned operation to kidnap the teens. The crime, they say, appears to be one of opportunity.
Grant Rumley, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who specializes in Palestinian politics, said that recent years have seen a process of decentralization for Hamas.
“We used to divide between Hamas’ political and military wings. Now it’s much more fragmented,” said Rumley. “You have Hamas members in Turkey, in the Gulf. It is much more decentralized.”
The result, said Israeli officials, is that nobody is sure who is giving the orders these days.
“How do we punish Hamas if we aren’t sure who ordered this kidnapping? Someone needs to be punished, this is clear, the people demand this. But there is not easy answer for what action we [the military] should take,” said one Israeli officer who is based in the southern West Bank. “And for us, if these were really individuals acting alone, there is the fear of how do we stop them in the future?”
In recent years, the Qawasmeh’s ties to Hamas have become murkier, as several family members became active, public members of the Fatah movement while others aligned with Salafi splinter groups.
“It’s a huge family with different affiliations, and this last incident cannot lead to any conclusions,” said Dr. Saeed Awaiwi, a professor of political science at Hebron’s Open University. The family counts more than 10,000 members, he said, and in recent years the split between the Qawasmehs and the West Bank’s Hamas leadership has become more pronounced.
In his recent column in Al Monitor, Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar wrote that the Qawasmeh family has a long history of instigating attacks and escalating violence beyond that which is ordered by Hamas.
“Marwan Qawasmeh and Amar Abu Aisha have brought Hamas to a place where its leadership never intended to go,” wrote Eldar.
In Hebron, the extended members of the family said that they long suffered from the aftermath of deeds carried out by more radical members of their family.
“Not all of our family is Hamas,” said Mohamed Qawasmeh, 70, whose son Osman was among those arrested by the Israeli army last week. “How long will we have to live in this fear, to be punished because of our family name?”
He claims his son has no ties to the Islamist movement, and certainly no ties to the kidnapping.
“We just want our children to be able to grow up, to live in peace and not be afraid of arrest because of their name,” he said.