HEBRON — The terrorist group that was able to kidnap the three Israeli teens from the Alon Shvut hitchhiking stop last Thursday will likely go down in the annals of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Israeli intelligence forces as one of the most dangerous and sophisticated cells to have been active in the West Bank in recent years.
Naturally, for censorship reasons, not many details of the operation can be disclosed. However, the way the cell was able to cover its tracks after the fact indicates that the terrorists laid the ground for the attack weeks, if not months, ahead of time. It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment improvisation, and certainly not an attack in the style of the kidnapping and killing of soldier Tomer Hazan last year.
To disappear for more than a week with the entire Israeli army and intelligence force in hot pursuit is no easy task. Clearly, much thought and many resources were dedicated to it. Which begs the question: could it be that all this was a local initiative by a local Hamas cell acting of its own accord? Or was it a case of a few terrorists who instigated an attack under explicit orders from the political leadership of Hamas or, alternately, its senior military leadership?
In a talk with military reporters on Wednesday, a top IDF officer was savvy enough to quote from an address given in May by Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal, in which he spoke to one of the most senior Hamas prisoners in an Israeli prison, Hassan Salame. Mashaal told him that the leadership of the movement had received his letter, and that its military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, would issue a response. The same Israeli officer was also savvy enough to hint that Mashaal’s words were actually an order to the forces on the ground to carry out a kidnapping.
If this is indeed true, it is not clear why the military has concentrated such intensive efforts on Hamas targets in the West Bank over the past week. That Israeli response to the abduction may have been the easiest to execute – but it is effective only in the very short term. The IDF and the State of Israel have, in a sense, targeted the weak. Hamas doesn’t have a strong or large presence in the West Bank, and it was almost certainly not from there — from Hebron or any other city in the West Bank — that the kidnapping orders or instructions came. We can only assume that the order came (if it came at all — at this point, Israel has no proof that there was such an order) from the Hamas leadership in Gaza or abroad. And, indeed, an Israeli security official on Thursday night pointed a finger of blame at Ankara-based deportee Saleh al-Arouri, who reports to Mashaal.
There isn’t a smoking gun to prove the Hamas leadership is complicit in the kidnapping. And yet, it’s not just Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who has declared that Hamas seized Gil-ad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach. In the eyes of the Palestinian intelligence forces, it was the Hamas leadership in Gaza or abroad that gave the order.
So why is Israel focusing its efforts on Hamas in the West Bank alone? After all, it isn’t such a sophisticated and complex infrastructure. The movement hasn’t exactly been flourishing in the West Bank in recent years. In terms of its military capabilities, it didn’t appear to be too effective, at least until the kidnapping. The Palestinian Authority persecuted its members and militants, the economic crisis in Gaza left its mark in the West Bank as well, and Hamas was generally unable to improve its public standing — before last Thursday.
The Israeli operation to “clean the stables” hardly seems impressive, and may not yield any dramatic results. Those 250-plus West Bankers who have been arrested, far from protesting, willingly turn themselves in; meanwhile, support for Hamas in the West Bank has not diminished. On the contrary: there are many who support kidnappings with the aim of freeing Palestinian prisoners.
In Gaza, the kidnap tactic worked — albeit at a very heavy price for its residents. In the West Bank, the populace hopes to recreate the outcome of the Gilad Shalit kidnapping in 2006 — Israel freed 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners to obtain his release five years later — but it has yet to pay the price that the residents of Gaza paid at the time. And that is the greatest fear of the population in both Gaza and the West Bank: an escalation in military activity that will lead to re-cantonization, sieges on cities throughout the West Bank, cities being cut off from other cities and finally, severe damage to the Palestinian economy.
This last point is critical, especially in light of the timing of the kidnapping: ten days before the start of the month of Ramadan, a period of holiday shopping to which many merchants look forward throughout the year. These are days of sumptuous meals in restaurants, performances by singers, and family outings. All of that could become a thing of the past if Israel decides to expand its operations in the West Bank in the next few days. If that occurs, it will be difficult to predict just how Hamas’s popularity will be affected. Even now, when the siege on Hebron isn’t at its heaviest, many of the city’s residents would like to see it end and have their lives go back to normal. And if the holiday preparations are compromised by the kidnapping, it is not at all certain that support for Hamas in the West Bank will grow.
Israel’s decision to undertake a comprehensive military operation only against Hamas in the West Bank at this point is most likely a result of having no other choice. The frustration is mounting: as of Thursday, a full week after the event, the kidnappers had yet to be found, and there was no real trace of their whereabouts, even though Netanyahu said Israel now knew more than it did a few days earlier. Though the identity of some of the kidnappers may be known, they were still able to disappear off the face of the earth — along with those they had seized. So the only thing left to do was demonstrate force to an organization whose movements are limited in the West Bank to begin with. Hence the searches that photograph so well, and the numerous arrests.
But the bottom line is that Israel is hesitant to get into a skirmish with those who are most likely to have been behind the attack – the Hamas leadership in Gaza or abroad. The meaning of an escalation in Gaza is most likely rockets on Tel Aviv. And that is something nobody in the Israeli leadership wants.
The end of the reconciliation story
On Wednesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas managed to stun the foreign ministers of the Arab League, who were meeting in Saudi Arabia, by voicing criticism of the kidnapping. But there were warning signs; two days previously, this reporter quoted senior Palestinian Authority officials as saying that if Hamas turned out to be behind the kidnapping, a real crisis would erupt in reconciliation efforts. And yet, nobody in Hamas expected such a harsh condemnation of the kidnapping, not to mention a threat of sorts, on Abbas’s part.
In Abbas’s words, the kidnapping of the “teens” (deliberately choosing a phrase that emphasized the boys’ youth, rather than “settlers”) could destroy the Palestinians and cause them harm. And then he added the threat: whichever party proved responsible for the kidnapping, “we’ll speak and act differently toward them.” He didn’t say the word “Hamas,” but everyone in the audience, everyone who heard him, understood his meaning. The message emanating from the Palestinian Authority in recent days evokes the threat used by commanders to scare new cadets: “every Sabbath has its end.” In other words, “after this incident is over, we’ll know how to deal with you.”
The change in the Palestinian Authority’s position didn’t take place in a vacuum. The upper echelons of the Fatah movement, and Abbas first and foremost, have realized that Hamas has simply manipulated them: Under the Fatah-Hamas unity pact, it committed to eschewing terrorist attacks but didn’t; agreed to step down from the government of the Gaza Strip but continued to rule it in practice; demanded that Abbas pay the salaries of 40,000 former Hamas bureaucrats and did everything it could to undermine Abbas. This attack was a blow not only to Israel, but also to Abbas and the promises he made to the international community. It painted him in a ludicrous light.
On Monday, Abbas and Netanyahu spoke on the phone – and for the first time in a long time, it seemed like the tone of their conversation was different. Netanyahu made no threats, while Abbas didn’t try to blame the occupation. He vowed to take action to bring the teens back.
And indeed, since then, the two sides have been speaking in different timbres: Netanyahu has refrained from attacking the Palestinian Authority and Abbas, while Abbas, for his part, has threatened Hamas. His speech in Saudi Arabia also prompted a change of tack on Hamas’s part. A string of high-ranking officials in the movement rushed to attack Abbas furiously, one of them accusing him of sounding like “the spokesman of the Israeli army.”
Between radicalization and frustration
On Wednesday afternoon, in Hebron, this reporter pulled up next to a drowsy Palestinian youth. I asked him for directions to a certain point, and he asked to join me for the ride. He didn’t realize that I was Jewish, and continued to listen to music on YouTube using his mobile phone. Suddenly, I noticed that the song was in Hebrew. I asked about the music, and he named the singer: Nir Ben-Menahem. An Israeli Jewish singer of Mizrahi music who, it turns out, has captivated the youth of Hebron – unbeknownst to him. The youth, whose name was Issam, sounded very critical toward Hamas and the kidnapping.
The problem Abbas and Fatah face is that unlike Issam, most residents of this city don’t listen to Israeli music, and do view the kidnapping as a positive step. They are also critical of the Palestinian Authority for accepting assistance from Israel in the fields of security and intelligence while about 250 prisoners hold a hunger strike in Israel’s jails. This is a Hamas city; the people here are more religious, more radical than elsewhere in the West Bank.
On Wednesday afternoon, the al-Quds restaurant, known for its wonderful home-style cooking, was starting to fill up with patrons. On the upper floor, a television was tuned to the Hamas channel, al-Aqsa, where a special broadcast about the arrest of a Palestinian journalist by Palestinian intelligence forces was being aired. Not al-Jazeera, not Palestinian television. Here, the color green remains the most popular of all.
Mazen al-Gheith, who owns a designer cookware store, is the brother of a Hamas member, an administrative detainee, who has been on hunger strike for 55 days. According to him, the Israeli public and the Shin Bet don’t understand just how big an impact the prisoners’ hunger strike has had. But that’s nothing, he says, compared to the impact of the images broadcast a week ago, showing Palestinian security forces hitting Sheikh Hassan Yousef, the most senior Hamas official in the West Bank.
“This kidnapping is against the Palestinian Authority too,” al-Gheith said. He said that a short while previously, he had met a Shin Bet handler, “Captain Adiv,” who called on him in his home. “I told him, ‘It’s a pity. For you, for your children. Your policies only wreck hearts instead of building understanding.’ I told him they have to release my brother. I explained to him that Hebron is a city of men who don’t care about anything. They have strong, fearless dispositions.”
His friend Ahmad butted into the discussion. “The Hebronites are aggressive, obdurate people. Nobody can stop Hamas here. Not even the [security] mechanisms. Everyone here is Hamas, everyone supports the kidnapping.”
Khaled, a 30-year-old with a sizable quantity of gel in his hair, entered the shop.
“I disagree,” he said. “Forgive me for saying this, but I’m interested in money and food. Am I happy with the kidnapping? No, I’m not happy, and I don’t want it.”