The evening of June 12 was the last night either of the men were seen. One of them was a 29-year-old barber named Marwan Qawasmeh. The other was a scraggly, intense-looking locksmith named Amer Abu Aisha last seen dancing at a wedding, his father told reporters, before he suddenly left. He didn’t tell anyone where he was going, and his mother, who also saw him that night, later recalled she did not suspect anything out of the ordinary.
That same night, three Israeli teenagers went missing while hitchhiking nearby the West Bank city of Hebron. Following one of the most aggressive searches in the past decade, which marshaled the political establishment’s attention and culminated in the social media campaign #avengeourboys, the teens were found dead on Monday.
The discovery has further inflamed relations between Israelis and Palestinians. Just three months ago, Israelis and Palestinians were in the midst of peace negotiations; now, Hamas is threatening the “gates of hell” and Israel is launching airstrikes.
The lead suspects in the boys’ abductions are Aisha and Qawasmeh. The fact that they’ve been missing since the teen’s disappearance is “clear evidence they have links with the abduction,” an anonymous senior Palestinian intelligence official told the Times of Israel.
On Monday night, hours after the teenagers’ bodies were discovered, Israeli forces blew the door off Qawasmeh’s home, but neither of the suspects were found. “At this time, thousands of soldiers and commanders are continuing their mission,” the head of the Israel Defense Forces Central Command told the news organization. “For us, the mission is not over.”
Both men reportedly come from families with connections to Hamas and have spent time in Israeli jail. Qawasmeh has been arrested five times and once allegedly told Israeli intelligence that the Hamas military wing had recruited him. Aisha, meanwhile, has been arrested twice, Israeli authorities say, and his family has deep ties to the group. Aisha’s father spent time in Israeli prisons for alleged connections with Hamas. And his brother, who was killed in 2005 after he attempted to throw an explosive at Israeli soldiers, was also suspected of a Hamas affiliation.
But from there, the story begins to blur. While not condemning the abduction, Hamas denied responsibility for the teens’ death. “The story of the disappearance and killing of the three settlers is based on the Israeli narrative only,” Sami Abu Zuhri told Agence France-Presse on Monday. “The Israeli occupation is trying to refer to this narrative in order to justify its wide-scale war against our people, against the resistance and against Hamas.”
Such hesitance to take a firm stance may speak to the complicated family history of at least one of the suspects, wrote longtime Mideast analyst Shlomi Eldar in Al-Monitor. Eldar reported Qawasmeh belongs to one the “three largest clans” in the Mount Hebron region, which is “known for identifying with Hamas.”
“They are an old and well-known Palestinian family,” the Los Angeles Times said of them in 2003, “a clan of doctors and judges, mechanics and storekeepers — and suicide bombers.”
The family has sometimes operated on the fringes of Hamas, wrote Eldar, who suspects the timing of the kidnappings is too convenient. “Each time Hamas has reached an understanding with Israel about a cease-fire … at least one member of the family has been responsible for planning or initiating a suicide attack, and any understanding with Israel, achieved after considerable effort, were suddenly laid waste,” Eldar said.
In 2003, the family unleashed a grisly campaign of suicide bombings. One got on an Israeli bus in the port city of Haifa and blew himself up. Another infiltrated a settlers’ neighborhood in Hebron and detonated explosives strapped to his waist. One more opened fire inside another Jewish settlement. Each, reported the Los Angeles Times, were in their 20s.
Finally, Israel forces shot and killed the clan’s leader, Adullah Qawasmeh — the uncle of suspected kidnapper Marwan Qawasmeh. Afterward, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the killing was “an essential operation meant to provide security to Israel,” though Secretary of State Colin Powell criticized it as a “possible impediment to progress” for peace.
Now again, Eldar wrote, it appears as though the family has acted in way that Hamas had neither expected nor wanted. “Marwan Qawasmeh and Amar Abu Aisha have brought Hamas to a place where its leadership never intended to go,” Al-Monitor reported. “By kidnapping three Israelis, the Qawasmeh family decided to take the leaders there anywhere.”