The passing of the hours since the abduction of three teens Thursday not only dampens the hopes of a nation but also pulls at the seams of the Israeli army’s two overlapping but divergent missions currently underway in the West Bank.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday perhaps inadvertently underscored the dual nature of Operation Brother’s Keeper. “We are currently focused on one mission – bringing the boys, our boys who were abducted, home. We are also operating against Hamas,” he said from the IDF Central Command HQ.
Finding Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar, and Naftali Frankel is, without doubt, the foremost mission. Most of the IDF, Shin Bet, and Israel Police actions revolve around that goal. Crime scene investigators are searching the scene of the kidnapping and the charred vehicle believed to have transported the abductors and abductees to the Dura area, near Hebron – the West Bank’s largest city. Canine units and trackers also are combing the ground to find the clue that focuses the search. Infantry troops, from Jenin in the north to Hebron in the south, are applying pressure to the surroundings by both their presence and nighttime arrests. Special Forces troops are apprehending top Hamas targets. Drones patrol the sky, assisting the troops on the ground and searching for runners. And the Shin Bet, spearheading the mission, is piecing together bits of information from interrogations, electronic surveillance, and human sources on the ground.
“We could call it,” Lt. Col. Peter Lerner of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit told the Times of Israel during a visit to the Hebron region Monday, “the peeling away of the ring that surrounds the perpetrators.”
Col. (res) Lior Lotan, a decorated officer who was wounded while leading the charge through gunfire to reach the abducted soldier Nachshon Wachsman in 1994 and later headed Military Intelligence’s missing and hostage department, described the mission as three-tiered. The first tier, he said, is “surgical – the arrests of specific people with information about this thing.”
He described the second tier, the arrests of Hamas operatives, as a more outdated form of surgery, in which “large sections are raised with forceps.” And the third tier, the encirclement of the cities, the mass arrests of the political echelon, and the flooding of the area with combat troops, as a form of operational pressure that allows the troops in the field to operate.
“Above all that, it is possible that some of the actions are intended to alter the situation vis-à-vis the Palestinians,” he said, adding that there “is certainly a punitive and deterrent element to it.”
Lerner confirmed that this is the dynamic at play. “The story is like this,” he said. “The main effort, of course, is intelligence gathering and converting the intelligence to focused operational activity against the perpetrators.”
“In parallel, there are full circles of Hamas, which operate in Judea and Samaria, which have grown… and we have seen a rise in Hamas over the past year… And if they chose to carry out this sort of attack, then we are now acting against this organization, massively, very significantly, across all of the West Bank.”
A military source quoted by Channel 2 on Tuesday afternoon underlined the point: “Everything that’s green [the color of Hamas], we’re cleaning out,” he said.
The second element of the mission played itself out on a large scale Monday night, with the arrest of 41 additional Hamas officials, including the head of the organization’s Al Aqsa TV station, Aziz Kaeed, and the seizure of personnel, arms, and ammunition across Nablus.
One imagines that this development, even in the days leading up to the month of Ramadan at the end of June, has not brought many Fatah members, Hamas’s rivals, in Ramallah to tears. But as the clock continues to tick and the Israeli presence in cities of the West Bank continues to increase, so too will the friction on the ground.
Hopefully, despite several unsolved killings in Hebron during the past year – the roadside shooting of Police Chief Superintendent Baruch Mizrachi on Passover eve and the sniper strike against IDF Staff Sergeant Gal Kobi near the Cave of the Patriarchs – the security forces will, as Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said on Monday evening, eventually reach the perpetrators and find the abducted. “There’s no doubt about it,” he said.