The politics of an abduction
Two decades after they last successfully abducted an Israeli hitchhiker, Palestinian terrorists have done it again.
Contact with three teenagers who were hitchhiking south of Jerusalem was lost on Thursday night, June 12, after they had boarded an unidentified vehicle outside the West Bank community of Kfar Etzion. Two of the three are 16-year-old religious boarding-school classmates Gilead Shaer and Naftali Frenkel. The third, Eyal Yifrach, is a 19-year-old student in a pre-military religious academy.
A week on, with military activity intense, there was no news of the three’s fate or whereabouts, while political, diplomatic, and strategic implications were piling up.
In itself, the attack was anything but novel. There have been dozens of attempts in recent years to kidnap Israelis, whether soldiers or civilians, in the stated hope of ultimately obtaining the release of Palestinian terrorists held in Israelis prisons in return for them.
The last time such an abduction was carried out successfully was in 1994, when infantry Sergeant Nachshon Wachsman entered a car driven by Hamas terrorists disguised as ultra-Orthodox Israelis. The Shin-Bet, Israel’s secret service, located the abandoned house where the hostage was held, but a commando operation designed to release him ended with his guards killing him before being killed themselves.
The current kidnapping is different from that precedent in that the abductees are all civilians, and two of them are also minors. The famous kidnapping of Sergeant Gilad Shalit, who was released three years ago in turn for more than a thousand prisoners, was not the result of a hitchhiking situation but followed an attack on an IDF outpost in southern Israel.
Following the Wachsman case, the IDF forbade soldiers to hitchhike, a decree that is largely obeyed by soldiers, all of whom ride Israelis buses and trains free of charge, regardless of rank and position. In fact, that may explain why the terrorists targeted civilians, a choice that has disadvantages from their point of view.
The other aspect that sets the current case apart is that one week into their attack the kidnappers have not sent any message, whereas in the past they assumed responsibility and made their demands public.
The security services’ response to the kidnapping was hampered by the loss of six precious hours that elapsed before the security forces realised what had happened.
It now is clear that one of the boys managed to call the Israel Police National Call Centre from his mobile and whisper to the operator “we have been kidnapped.” The person who received the call judged it, after some consultation, as a hoax. Security forces only began acting after one of the boys’ parents reported his son was missing.
Even so, Israeli investigators believe the kidnappers came from, and ended up in, the general area of Hebron in the southern West Bank, based among other things on examination of a torched vehicle that was found abandoned south of that city the morning after the abduction. Consequently, the IDF has surrounded the southern Judean Mountains, and began searching methodically hundreds of houses, one by one.
At the same time, mass-arrests have been made, throughout the West Bank, of Hamas activists, both political and military, including some 50 of those released in 2011 in return for Gilad Shalit.
Meanwhile, on the political plane, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has publicly blamed the kidnapping on Hamas. Analysts say Netanyahu and Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon have resolved to use the kidnapping in order to deal Hamas a strategic setback.
Curiously enough, this quest seemed to be shared by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, who said in Riyadh, of all places, to the Arab League’s foreign ministers, of all audiences, that the attack’s perpetrators are the PA’s enemies, and that the abductees are human beings who must be immediately released.
Abbas’ rhetoric stunned all his listeners – in Riyadh, Jerusalem and Ramallah, not to mention Gaza. Coupled with his resolve to maintain security cooperation with Israel in the field, and to actively help search for the abductees, Abbas was derided by Hamas leaders as “Netanyahu’s aide” and as “the IDF’s spokesman.”
Even so, the assessment in Israel is that the entire situation is a great complication for the already embattled Hamas.
The Gaza-based organisation now finds itself isolated in the Arab world where it has lost all its patrons – from Syria, where it jumped Bashar Assad’s ship back when he seemed to be losing his civil war, to Egypt, where Hamas’ strategic ally, the Muslim Brotherhood, has been swept from power and is now on the run.
Netanyahu’s public demand of Abbas is that he disband the coalition he has recently created between Fatah and Hamas. Based on his statement in Riyadh, some rushed to conclude that Abbas is seeking a divorce from Hamas. However, experts like former head of Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. (Res.) Amos Yadlin say Abbas will not go that far, and point to the failure of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent effort to broker a deal between Abbas and Netanyahu.
For its part, Hamas has fired several rockets from Gaza into Israel, saying it was its response to Israel’s arrests in the West Bank. The rocket attacks were ineffective, with some of the rockets intercepted and the rest falling in empty fields.
Ultimately, much will depend on the aftermath of the abduction saga. If it ends with Hamas somehow emboldened, Abbas will not confront it. If it ends with Hamas weakened, Abbas may use the situation to attempt to impose himself on the Islamist organisation that wrested Gaza from his oversight back in 2007.
Meanwhile, the kidnapping has united Israelis.
In the Knesset synagogue, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle held special prayers for the three’s release, while special services were held at the Western Wall, elsewhere in the Jewish state and in synagogues throughout the Diaspora.
In the government, the Treasury and the Defence Ministry quietly resolved a longstanding dispute concerning the IDF’s budget, as the former agreed to a NIS 1 billion (A$310 million) addition in turn for the latter’s commitment to evacuate lucrative real estate in Tel Aviv. And out on the blogosphere activists launched a campaign under the hashtag slogan “#BringBackOurBoys” aimed at enlisting global sympathy for the Israeli cause.
At the United Nations, Israel’s Ambassador Ron Prosor held a press conference in which he blamed “the international community” for being apathetic to the abduction and asked: “Where are you?”
In Jerusalem, Aliza Lavi, Chair of the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women, sent a public plea to Michelle Obama, asking the American First Lady to speak out against the involvement of minors in the conflict.
Some of this pressure seemed to register, as the European Union released a condemnation following five days of silence and also sent its Ambassador to Israel to visit the hometown of one of the abductees. Tony Blair, speaking for the Quartet (Russia, US, EU and UN) spoke more harshly, as did US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who also emphasised one of the abductees’ American citizenship.
However, the broader circumstances are such that the world’s attention is focussed now on Iraq teetering on the brink of collapse, clearly a potentially momentous event. By contrast, the abduction is for now seen by most foreigners as yet another unfortunate event in the protracted and unchanging Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
However, this insight may change, should the world conclude that Israel, with or without Mahmoud Abbas’ complicity, is using the kidnapping to attempt to change the bigger picture of which it is a part.