There was a time, years ago, when it seemed as though Saleh al-Arouri had changed.
In the spring of 2007, and Arouri, a scruffy bear of a man, had just emerged from 15 years in Israeli prison – his third substantial sentence. A bombastic figure who claims to have a great many friends, he settled at a table with some pals and a Telegraph reporter. He was in an expansive mood. Before them was a spread of coconut chocolate bars.
The prominent Hamas leader, who founded the group’s military wing Qassam Brigades, said he was done with terrorism. Done with raising money and recruiting fresh militants. He concluded Hamas is “harmed if we target civilians. At the end of the day, the fruit of military action is political action. All wars end with truces and negotiations.”
But now, seven years and another prison sentence later, Israeli officials contend Arouri has reversed that sequence — and ended negotiations with a war.
In the chaotic days before the bodies of three kidnapped Israeli teens were found, Israeli officials told the local press that Arouri was behind the Hebron abductions. “The official claimed al-Arouri … has urged West Bank operatives incessantly to set up terror cells and perpetuate kidnappings,” wrote Avi Issacharoff of the Times of Israel. “Al-Arouri has financially sponsored these cells, which were trained and directed to abduct Israelis. Often that money was transferred through charities to obfuscate their real destination — the would-be kidnappers.”
The Israeli teens were shot at least 10 times with a silenced gun, Reuters reported on Wednesday, in what appeared to be a premeditated killing. And their abductions, which many believe precipitated the murder of a Palestinian teen, pushed the region to the precipice of war. In the past 48 hours, Israeli airstrikes targeted 60 houses in Gaza, and the Health Ministry there said Wednesday night that 41 residents have been killed — and that 13 of them were 16 or younger.
Meanwhile, the two men who allegedly abducted the Israeli teens remain at large — as well as Arouri, who analysts contend masterminded several attempted kidnappings in the West Bank. The name Saleh al-Arouri “was a familiar one for those who follow Hamas closely,” wrote Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute, a Middle East think tank. “Observers and experts are sure to eventually circle back to Arouri, who has been a key figure behind Hamas’ efforts to rejuvenate the group’s terrorist networks in the West Bank.”
A survey of federal court records, academic analysis and international agency reports reveal Arouri to be a meticulous, bookish figure — as much an organizer and family man as a militant throughout his lengthy association with Hamas. According to a federal indictment, Arouri has been a “high-ranking Hamas military leader dating back to his role as a Hamas student cell leader at Hebron University in the early 1990s.” There, he studied sharia law and the following year was elected leader of the Islamic Faction at the university.
His duties soon spilled outside the classroom. He began organizing events to recruit fresh Hamas operatives and, federal authorities charge, secured tens of thousands of dollars “for the purchase of weapons that were to be used in terrorist attacks.”
After a short prison stint — the first of several – he was directed “to recruit a squad in Hebron and to obtain weapons,” according to Levitt. Among the haul: one M-16 rifle, two Kalashnikov rifles, two Uzi submachine guns, two or three 8mm and 9mm pistols and one carbine rifle. Those weapons were then allegedly used in the murder of an Israeli soldier.
But there appear to be two sides to Arouri. In 1992, he began what would become a 15-year sentence in an Israeli prison for “his leadership role in the Hamas movement” and “conducting unlawful activities” — but was simultaneously engaged to a woman who would wait 12 years for his release. When he got out in 2007, he quickly married her.
“Yes, my marriage to my fiancee and building a family is the most important thing now especially when my fiancee waited for me for 12 years,” a Hamas press office quotes him as saying.
But within weeks, he was arrested again under an administrative detention order, according to the Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association. He spent the next 33 months in jail — and this time when he emerged there weren’t proclamations of amended ways.
He was soon exiled from Israel. He and his wife and daughter fled to Jordan but “were detained by Israeli border officials and told they could not cross the border for security reasons,” reported Amnesty International. “He considers he has no choice but to accept the deportation … to continue his family life.”
Eventually, he is believed to have made it to Turkey, where analysts and Israeli security officers suspect he planned a surge in West Bank terrorism. “Over the past couple of years, dozens of operatives dispatched by Arouri tried to enter the West Bank via Jordan with messages directing operatives to carry out kidnappings and funds to finance the operations,” Levitt wrote.
The alleged reason: Hamas thinks kidnapping Israelis is one of the more effective ways to securing the release of its men. In the past two years, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) says, “Palestinian terrorist organizations have planned 64 abductions,” many of them by Hamas.
Now eyes in the region are settling on Arouri. On June 20, military vehicles and armored bulldozers demolished his house in the West Bank.
And on Wednesday a Turkish politician asked where he is and how long he’s been in the country. “Why has he been staying in Turkey?” the man wondered. “If it is true, why has Israel asked for his deportation and extradition?”