June 18, 2014
Number 06/14 #03
Israeli security forces are engaged in an operation to find three Israeli teenagers apparently kidnapped in the West Bank last Thursday night. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has said Israel has strong evidence Hamas was responsible and it is clear that Israeli security forces are engaging in a broader crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, as well as searching for the three missing teens. This Update looks at both Israeli efforts and the implications for the Hamas-Fatah unity deal of the kidnapping and Israeli response.
First up is a useful backgrounder from BICOM, the British-Israel Communications and Research Centre. It details what is known about the boys, and their kidnapping, as well as the Israeli operation, known as “Brother’s keeper”, to find them. It also briefly discusses the wider context – including not only the Fatah-Hamas unity deal, but also escalating violence in the West Bank over recent months. For this valuable summary of all the key details of this issue, CLICK HERE. More on how Israeli forces are both seeking the three teens and attempting to crackdown on Hamas from columnist Dan Margalit. Plus more on Israeli policy from academic and former Israeli diplomat Dore Gold in an interview.
Next up is a more detailed analysis of the political background and implications of the kidnapping from Neri Zilber of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He looks at the stresses already afflicting the Hamas-Fatah unity deal even before the latest events, and includes quotes about Hamas’ approach from a senior Hamas figure in the West Bank whom he interviewed. Zilber then goes on to look at the implications, if Hamas is indeed responsible, noting that further steps in the reconciliation agreement, such as moving Fatah troops to Gaza to operate the border crossings, probably won’t go ahead, and that escalation into a major conflict between Hamas and Israel is a distinct possibility. For all of his analysis, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Palestinian Affairs reporter Avi Issacharoff looks at the intra-Palestinian politics of the kidnapping. He argues that PA President Abbas is now coming to recognise that this kidnapping likely ended his unity deal with Hamas. He notes that, from Hamas’ point of view, the kidnapping, which is very popular on the Palestinian street (see Or Avi-Guy’s blog on this below) looks like a gamble to vastly increase its power in the West Bank – although the reaction from Hamas leaders has been confused and garbled. Issacharoff also warns that a conflict in Gaza looks like a distinct possibility. To read all his insights, CLICK HERE. Issacharoff has subsequently reported that senior Fatah officials are saying that the unity pact will be null and void if Hamas did carry out the kidnapping, and that Palestinian intelligence is that they likely did. He earlier reported that the unity agreement was not changing the reality that Hamas is running Gaza.
Readers may also be interested in:
- A touching piece on the poise of the parents of the three teens, and the intense feelings their abduction has awakened in Israelis across the political spectrum from David Horovitz of the Times of Israel.
- Shmuel Rosner had two good posts on the Israeli reaction to the kidnapping, one about the internal debates that have erupted in Israel, and another about Israel’s evolving views on swapping prisoners for those kidnapped in the wake of the Gilad Schalit deal in 2011.
- A detailed IDF history of past Hamas efforts, successful and unsuccessful, to kidnap Israeli soldiers and civilians. Plus more on the background of growing extremism on the West Bank from Israeli security correspondent Ron Ben Yishai.
- An Israeli Arab teen was threatened for publicly condemning the kidnapping.
- In an editorial, the Jerusalem Post suggests some parallels between Hamas and the ISIS, currently destablising much of Iraq.
- Israel continues to be targeted by rocket attacks from Gaza.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- AIJAC’s statement about the kidnappings.
- Or Avi-Guy on the many signs of gloating and jubiliation among Palestinians about the kidnappings, including from the supposedly more Fatah organisation.
- Glen Falkenstein has a piece on ABC’s “Unleashed” on the Australian government’s much talked about decision to refrain from using the word “occupied” to refer to east Jerusalem.
- Glen Falkenstein also had a post on what the difficult situation for Jews in Sweden tells us about international surveys on antisemitism.
- Israeli security forces are conducting intensive military and intelligence operations to locate three Israeli teenagers kidnapped in the West Bank on Thursday, with Prime Minister Netanyahu stating that Hamas members carried out the kidnapping.
- The kidnapping comes at a moment of increased tensions following the establishment of a Palestinian unity government to reunite the Gaza Strip and West Bank under a single Palestinian authority backed by both Fatah and Hamas.
- The viability of the unity government is under the spotlight, with Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank cooperating with the IDF. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas spoke with Netanyahu on Monday and subsequently condemned the abduction.
- Since the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in return for Gilad Shalit in 2011 there have been consistent warnings from Israeli security services about plots by Palestinian armed groups to kidnap Israeli soldiers or civilians.
What has happened?
- Israeli security forces are conducting intensive military and intelligence operations to locate three missing Israeli teenagers kidnapped on Thursday evening in the West Bank.
- The three were taken whilst hitchhiking in the area of the Gush Etzion settlement block in the West Bank. The three are Naftali Frenkel, 16, from Nof Ayalon in central Israel, Gilad Shaer, 16, from Talmon, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, and Eyal Yifrah, 19, from Elad in central Israel.
- Frenkel and Shaar are students at the modern Orthodox Makor Haim yeshiva (religious seminary) in Kvar Etzion, a religious kibbutz in the Gush Etzion area.
- Though one of the teenagers managed to call the police in the process of the abduction there was a delay of several hours before the incident was reported to the IDF and Shin Bet (Israeli internal intelligence).
- The focus of operations is the Hebron region of the southern West Bank. A burnt out car found in the Hebron area may be linked. However, due to the original delay in reporting the incident, investigations have included the lesser possibility that they have been moved out of the West Bank.
Who are the perpetrators?
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said directly that Hamas members carried out the abduction. However, Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip have rejected the accusation of responsibility. According to an Israeli media report, two Hamas operatives from Hebron have been missing since Thursday, and their wives have been questioned by Israeli investigators. It remains unclear at this point to what extent the Hamas operatives involved were acting under direct orders from the military or political leadership of Hamas.
How has Israel responded?
- The focus of the Israeli security forces is locating and returning the teenagers. The search operation, dubbed ‘Operation Brothers Keeper’ by the IDF, has included the arrest of around 190 Palestinians in the West Bank, as of Tuesday morning. Many are Hamas affiliates including its most senior West Bank-based officials, as well as some Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives. A Palestinian man was killed in the Ramallah area during an arrest operation on Sunday night.
- A partial closure has been imposed on the Hebron region and Israeli troops are conducting widespread house to house searches. Paratroopers have been diverted to join the search, and a small number of reservists, numbering several hundred, have been called up.
- Palestinian Authority (PA) Security Forces in the West Bank are cooperating with the IDF, and on Monday Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas held a rare phone conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu, subsequently issuing a statement condemning the abduction.
- On Saturday, Sunday and Monday night Israel carried out airstrikes in the Gaza Strip against several weapons stores and other targets in response to rockets fired at Israel. The Iron Dome missile defence system intercepted rockets heading for Ashkelon on Sunday night, believed to have been fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
- Israel has also reportedly moved Iron Dome missile defence batteries to the central Israeli towns of Ashdod and Rehovot – a possible indication of preparation for escalation in the Gaza Strip.
What is the security context and implications?
- Since the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in return for Gilad Shalit in October 2011 there have been consistent warnings from Israeli security services about plots by Palestinian armed groups to kidnap Israeli soldiers or civilians. According to the IDF, since 2013, the Israeli forces have foiled over 64 kidnapping attempts, with Hamas prisoners held in Israeli jails planning the majority of these efforts.
- In September 2013, a Palestinian terrorist kidnapped and murdered IDF Sergeant Tomer Hazan, planning to use the soldier’s body to bargain for the release of his brother, imprisoned for involvement in terror attacks.
- The current incident comes at a moment of increased tension since the suspension of recent peace talks and the establishment of a Palestinian unity government backed by Hamas.
- Unrelated to the Palestinian unification process, the last year has seen an increase in violence from Palestinian groups and individuals in the West Bank, and credible reports of increased attempts by Hamas to operate armed cells there. The Hebron area has seen a number of incidents, with an IDF soldier killed by a sniper in the city in October 2013, and an off duty police officer killed by gunmen whilst driving with his family close to Hebron in April. Through its widespread arrest of Hamas activists, Israeli forces will likely be hoping to get a grip on this increasing threat from Hamas in the West Bank.
- This incident also comes against the backdrop of a hunger strike being undertaken by a number of Palestinian security prisoners.
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June 16, 2014
If U.S. policy was to “wait and see” how the Hamas-approved Palestinian reconciliation process would unfold in practice, the test is now.
On June 12, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in the West Bank while hitchhiking outside the Israeli settlement bloc of Gush Etzion. In addition to potentially undermining stability in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and southern Israel, the incident could severely complicate Palestinian political moves toward reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.
THE SECURITY CONTEXT
According to Israeli security sources, West Bank terrorist groups had made forty-four kidnapping attempts on Israeli civilians and soldiers over the eighteen months preceding last week’s incident, all of them thwarted. Israeli authorities have continuously warned the public not to accept rides from strangers, especially on West Bank highways, though the practice is quite common among the settler community.
Warning signs aside, the abduction of three people and the inability to locate them after several days indicates a high level of operational sophistication and planning by the perpetrators. It is unlikely that this was an isolated or spur-of-the-moment act, necessitating as it did a multiperson cell, transportation, evasion methods, and — if the youths are still alive — a secure holding location.
The Israeli response has been decisive, though at this point inconclusive. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have streamed elite combat infantry units into the southern West Bank, in particular Hebron and its surrounding villages, believed to be the most likely location of the missing civilians. IDF forces in the area have been reinforced by battalions from outside the West Bank, including a limited call-up of reserve units. Main access routes into Hebron have been monitored by “flying” inspection checkpoints, though a full-scale closure of the city has not been implemented. The Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) is known to be working around the clock gathering intelligence leads, and house-to-house searches as well as large-scale arrests of known terrorist operatives have been undertaken across the West Bank. Senior Hamas leaders in particular have been targeted for arrest given the widespread belief among Israeli officials that the group is directly or indirectly responsible for the kidnapping.
Meanwhile, the border region surrounding Gaza has witnessed sporadic rocket fire targeting Israeli towns over the past several days. The IDF has elevated its force posture in southern Israel, including the additional deployment of Iron Dome antirocket systems. For its part, the Israeli Air Force has launched retaliatory strikes on Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad bases in Gaza.
A DELICATE POLITICAL MOMENT
The kidnapping comes at a sensitive moment in intra-Palestinian politics. Despite the inherent difficulties in the April 23 reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah (see PolicyWatch 2258, “Palestinian Reconciliation: Devil in the Details?”), the two parties were in the process of implementing its terms. A new “national consensus” government was sworn in on June 3, and based on interviews over the past week in Ramallah with senior officials from both sides, their stated intention was to move forward on other outstanding issues: namely, resolving the salary crisis regarding Hamas public-sector employees in Gaza, opening the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt via the return of Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces, and holding presidential and legislative elections toward the end of the year.
Fatah and Hamas officials interviewed by the author were well aware of the high public support among Palestinians for reunification of the PA-governed West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza (see “Palestinians Want Hamas In, but Want Peace Talks Too”). And given the deteriorating economic and social conditions in Gaza, many PA officials believed that Hamas felt more urgency than Fatah to strike the deal and keep its implementation on course. Indeed, the manner in which the reconciliation process has unfolded so far indicates that Fatah has been dictating terms to Hamas, not the other way around.
For instance, the recently established “unity” government does not include a single Hamas representative — all of the key posts, including prime minister, interior minister, finance minister, and foreign minister, were retained by officials considered either close or pliant to PA president Mahmoud Abbas. In addition, public promises by Hamas leaders that all Gaza public-sector employees (approximately 70,000 affiliated with Fatah and 40,000 with Hamas) would be paid have not materialized. Only Fatah personnel have received salaries so far, and a recent week-long Hamas-initiated bank shutdown in Gaza did not succeed in forcing the PA’s hand. The committee tasked with vetting the Hamas employees will reportedly not begin its work until after the next elections (i.e., in several months), and it too lacks Hamas representatives — all of its members are PA technocrats from various ministries.
Tellingly, prior to his arrest by the IDF over the weekend, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a prominent West Bank Hamas leader, did not refute these points, nor the claim that Hamas was in crisis (though he was at pains to emphasize that the entire region, including Israel, the PA, and Egypt, was also in crisis). In a conversation with the author, he freely admitted that the group’s seven-year experiment in governing Gaza had eroded its support base there. “The sovereign loses,” he observed. He added separately that Hamas had two goals in the reconciliation deal: (1) retaining its capabilities against Israel while participating in the political system (as he put it, “The Palestinian Authority has only the option of negotiations, while Hamas has many options…The current situation in Gaza could lead to an explosion, and Israel will be the target of this explosion…and the first target of Hamas”), and (2) pawning off Gaza on Abbas. “We say ‘take,'” he stated figuratively, “Hamas is [now] responsible for nothing.”
Further complicating the political atmosphere is the nearly two-month hunger strike by eighty-five Palestinian administrative detainees being held in Israeli prisons. The issue is a highly evocative one among the Palestinian public — during a recent visit to Ramallah, the author noted that most street corners were adorned with black flags of silhouetted prisoners, hands raised aloft, unshackled. Demonstrations on behalf of the prisoners have been held in central Ramallah over the past several weeks, as well as solidarity strikes by West Bank business owners and symbolic protests outside the prime minister’s office. Given that the Palestinian media regularly refer to IDF arrests of Palestinian suspects as “kidnappings,” the popular sentiment militating for the kidnapping of Israeli citizens as bargaining chips was considerable. Indeed, shortly after Thursday’s abduction, the official Fatah Facebook page and a prominent PA daily ran cartoons supporting the act.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?
Whether the three Israeli teenagers are still alive, how the hunt for those responsible is concluded, and the actual identity of the perpetrators will all dictate how events unfold going forward. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and various IDF officers have already stated that Hamas is likely responsible, though it remains unclear whether the operation was sanctioned by the group’s political and military leadership or carried out by a Hebron-area cell working on its own judgment. Thus far, no Palestinian group has claimed official responsibility, and no demands have been issued. Hamas leaders have remained silent apart from general statements supporting the act and urging West Bank Palestinians to confront Israeli forces.
For his part, President Abbas condemned the kidnapping only after several days’ delay. At the same time, he condemned IDF actions in the West Bank, hinting at the political tightrope he apparently feels the need to walk: on the one hand, maintaining security cooperation with Israel and good relations with the international community, while on the other avoiding the appearance of undermining the Palestinian prisoner cause. Further pressure was heaped on him by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who recently stated that the “Hamas-Fatah unity pact” has led to an increase in terrorism from the West Bank.
POTENTIAL FOR FURTHER ESCALATION
If the kidnapping is not brought to a peaceful end — and if it is shown to be a Hamas operation, sanctioned or not — then Israel and the international community will pressure Abbas to launch a wide crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank. Such developments could damage the Palestinian reconciliation process, putting into question Abbas’s entire political strategy since the breakdown in negotiations with Israel. The next milestone of the reconciliation agreement calls for the seating of the Palestinian Legislative Council, a move now in doubt given that most West Bank Hamas legislators, including parliamentary speaker Aziz Duwaik, have been arrested. Moreover, in the event of a military flare-up in Gaza (whether due to potential Israeli retaliation or other factors), it is highly unlikely that PA security forces could be deployed there as planned or that Egypt would agree to open the Rafah crossing, to say nothing of Abbas’s rumored upcoming visit to the territory.
In Israel, the kidnapping has consumed the public’s attention, with numerous prayer vigils held and nonstop media coverage urging the “return of our boys.” Accordingly, the Netanyahu government will feel pressure to continue responding forcefully, not only with military raids, economic sanctions, and other legal measures in the West Bank, but perhaps with airstrikes targeting the likely “address” of the operation in Gaza. The Israeli cabinet is already reportedly mulling these and other steps against Hamas, including the group’s political wing. This in turn would probably trigger increased rocket attacks against population centers in southern Israel.
In political and diplomatic terms, proving Hamas culpability for the kidnapping would reinforce the Israeli government’s stance that the new Palestinian government is inimical to peace, making portions of the international community more receptive to that view. Public sentiment in Israel is also shifting against the idea of releasing Palestinian terrorists as part of a prisoner exchange similar to the 2011 Gilad Shalit deal. The Knesset is set to pass a bill making presidential pardons impossible in certain egregious cases of terrorism and murder, a move meant to dissuade future kidnapping attempts.
In light of these factors, the potential for military escalation is real and carries the added risk of further deterioration in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Escalation could also scuttle prospects for the questionable Palestinian reconciliation process; in fact, given the timing of the kidnapping, that may well have been one of the operation’s objectives (in addition to gaining the release of Palestinian prisoners as part of a hostage negotiation). Spoilers and rejectionists, it seems, may have more than the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in their sights.
Finally, the kidnapping only underscores the current quandary of U.S. policy. In his remarks condemning the crime, Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed the U.S. view that Hamas is a terrorist organization, but he has said nothing further on the technocratic reconciliation government that exists because of Hamas approval. That ambiguity will be difficult to maintain should the group emerge as culpable for this event, or even if Hamas seeks to blame it on renegade members outside its effective control. If U.S. policy was to “wait and see” how the technocratic government performs in practice, the test is now.
Neri Zilber, a visiting scholar at The Washington Institute, is a journalist and researcher on Middle East politics and culture.
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The timing of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s condemnation Monday morning of the kidnapping of three Israeli youths is no coincidence; nor is the timing of his telephone conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Over the preceding 48 hours, it seems, something has shifted in the upper echelons of the PA and Abbas’s Fatah party.
Essentially, Abbas has come to realize that the recently inked unity pact with Hamas ended at the moment of the abduction. In off-the-record conversations, confidants of Abbas’s say that Hamas will pay a steep price for the kidnapping – beyond the massive Israeli operation to recover the abductees, Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel – in the form of punitive steps with which the PA plans to target Hamas in Gaza.
Since its announcement in April, analysts have been seeing the Fatah-Hamas unity agreement as a gamble, due to both Israel’s outright rejection of it and the US’s ambiguous stance (Washington has maintained that it will continue to work with the PA, although it still considers Hamas as a terror organization).
And yet Abbas decided to proceed and check, for the umpteenth time since the Palestinian rift of 2007, whether reconciliation with Hamas was possible. For him, it was practically personal – a matter of critical import. It was on his watch that the Hamas government of Gaza splintered from that of Fatah, in the West Bank, and he hoped that before his presidential term ran out he would succeed in restoring Palestinian unity.
Yet, from the moment the agreement was finalized, some two weeks before the kidnapping on Thursday, Abbas’s security forces realized that Hamas was trying to undermine the relative peace in the West Bank and foment unrest against both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The prisoners’ hunger strike, in that regard, became a tool with which Hamas instigated protests, capitalizing on the public’s sentiment to boost its own standing as the protector of the inmates, while weakening Fatah. Hence the relatively intensive action by PA security forces in the days leading up to the kidnapping against Hamas activists.
Palestinian police arrested several Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists, while breaking up Hamas-organized protests “in solidarity with the hunger strikers.” And then came the kidnapping. History has shown that the immediate aftermath of such actions sees a surge in support for Hamas. Even in Hebron, where residents are being forced to contend with an IDF-imposed curfew that has denied them access to Israel and Jordan, the kidnapping is perceived as an act of valor.
The question is whether the Palestinians in the city will continue to see the kidnappers as heroes if the curfew drags on for a month or more, taking a big bite out of their livelihood. Hebron is often described as the commercial capital of the West Bank, and an extended curfew could spell economic disaster for its residents.
Meanwhile, reactions to the kidnapping among Hamas’s leaders have been tentative and garbled. Alongside their statements praising the “operation,” officials have asserted that they have no information about the attack. Perhaps they’re telling the truth; most complex actions executed by Hamas are managed by the organization’s military wing, which doesn’t furnish its political echelon with any details. And yet, Hamas leaders are painfully aware that, whatever befalls the three Israeli youths, they could eventually pay for it with their own lives.
One must note that, so far, there’s nothing to indicate that the kidnappers are seeking to trade the teens for Palestinian prisoners. The kidnappers haven’t made approaches to anyone – in Israel, the PA or elsewhere – with the intention of negotiating for their release. Even Egypt, long considered the go-to negotiator between Israel and Hamas in such situations, hasn’t received any word.
The passage of time only exacerbates fears for the fate of the kidnapped youths, and sharpens the prediction that Israel is hurtling toward a massive conflict with Gaza.