JERUSALEM Israel has arrested eight Palestinians who had supporting roles in the abduction and killing of three Jewish teenagers in June but the two kidnappers themselves remain at large, Israeli officials said on Thursday.
They said interrogation of the suspects, all from the West Bank city of Hebron and linked to Hamas, had turned up evidence of funding from the Gaza Strip, which the Islamist faction controls, but not yet of any direct orders by Hamas leaders.
The account underscored the often diffuse structure of Hamas, hundreds of whose activists were rounded up by Israeli forces in the West Bank after the abductions, stoking hostilities from Gaza that led to a seven-week-long war there.
After initially denying involvement in the deaths of Jewish seminary students Eyal Yifrach, 19, and 16-year-olds Gilad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel, Hamas last month acknowledged responsibility.
But Khaled Meshaal, the group's exiled leader, said Hamas members had struck without informing the top echelon in advance.
In 2011, Hamas traded an Israeli soldier it was holding in Gaza for more than 1,000 Palestinians jailed by Israel. It had since advocated the seizure of more Israelis for further swaps.
Israel's Shin Bet security service said the Palestinians detained included Hussam Kawasme, who confessed to bankrolling the attack using some $50,000 provided to him by a brother in Gaza and arranged for the three youths to be buried on his private land, and two men who procured guns and a car for the abductions. Another five men are being held for helping the kidnappers evade capture and trying to spirit Kawasme to Jordan.
"As far as we are concerned, the cell that carried out this terrorist attack has almost been cracked," a Shin Bet official told Reuters. But he said it was too early to rule out a command role by more senior Hamas figures.
"Our interrogations are not over yet, and three of those who were involved are not in our custody," the official said, referring to the alleged source of Hamas funds in Gaza and the two alleged kidnappers, Amar Abu Aysha and Marwan Kawasme.
The official said the Shin Bet believed Aysha and Kawasme, posing as Israeli motorists, planned to take two live captives, but were surprised when the three youths got into their car at a hitch-hiking station in the West Bank. That raised the possibility that the kidnappers then panicked and opened fire.
The FBI, which helped the Israeli probe because Fraenkel also held U.S. citizenship, assessed in July that the captors intended to kill the three from the outset, using a silenced pistol to shoot them repeatedly in the car.
It was not clear how the eight Palestinians in Israeli custody would plead to the charges against them in military court, where defendants sometimes argue that their closed-door confessions were forced. Asked if the detainees had been assigned lawyers, Israeli officials did not immediately comment.
(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Dominic Evans)