JERUSALEM _ Israeli officials Wednesday said their agents, working with the FBI, have broken up an East Jerusalem-based militant cell that allegedly carried out several terrorist attacks, including last month’s bombing of Hebrew University that killed nine people, five of them Americans.
Israeli authorities arrested five men on Saturday who they say were part of a 15-member cell operated by the militant group Hamas. The men allegedly were responsible for eight attacks that killed 35 people and were preparing to carry out another bombing when they were arrested.
“These arrests mean that they won’t be carrying out any attacks anymore, and people will be alive,” said Gil Kleiman, an Israeli police spokesman.
Most of the attacks against Israelis have come from Palestinians sneaking into Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel has enacted strict measures to deter such attacks, including building a security fence to wall off the West Bank and demolishing the homes of terror suspects.
But four of the arrested men live legally in East Jerusalem, home to 200,000 Palestinians, suggesting that the effectiveness of Israeli plans to stop the attacks may be limited. Like other Palestinian residents in Jerusalem, the men carried Israeli identity cards that permitted them to work and move freely around Israel.
“This is something I feared,” Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert told Israeli radio.
The fifth arrested man is from a village near the West Bank city of Ramallah.
The suspects included Mohammed Odeh, 29, a Palestinian handyman employed at Hebrew University. On July 30, Odeh received a bomb from an accomplice in Ramallah, Israeli officials said. That night, he allegedly hopped over the fence of Hebrew University and hid a bag containing the bomb in a bush.
Israeli officials say Odeh returned in the morning, flashed his employee card and entered the campus. He allegedly picked up the bag and left it on a table in the school’s Frank Sinatra cafeteria, where many foreign students gather. Then, officials said, Odeh walked away and detonated the explosives, triggering them with a remote control inside his cell phone. He returned to work the following day.
After the attack, Hamas declared that it was in revenge for an Israeli air strike on Gaza City that killed its senior military commander and 14 others, including nine children.
The cell also allegedly orchestrated a suicide bombing at a Jerusalem cafe in March that killed 11 people, a pool hall bombing in the southern city of Rishon Letzion that killed 15 people, and a bombing at Israel’s largest fuel depot.
“This cell was extremely deadly, extremely dangerous and extremely successful,” said Yoni Fighel, a researcher in the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism. “No doubt this is one the most dangerous cells operating lately in the past several years.”
Using phone taps and information from Palestinian informers, an elite Israeli security unit nabbed the suspects Saturday night as they were going to pick up a bomb left hidden for them on a main highway leading from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, according to Israeli officials.
A U.S. official said agents from the FBI were in Israel for two weeks, shared their expertise and helped the Israelis gather leads. U.S. law mandates that the FBI investigate the killing of any Americans overseas.
“They worked very closely with the Israelis,” said a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv. “It was a cooperative effort.”