More than 24 hours after the disappearance of three Israeli youngsters from the Gush Etzion area, it is still difficult to say who was behind their kidnapping or, heaven forbid, their murder.
The immediate suspicion falls on Hamas, of course. In the past few years its members have made dozens of attempts to abduct Israelis, all of them thwarted by the Israeli Shin Bet or by Palestinian Intelligence. Hamas wants to bolster its appeal among Palestinians, and it knows much of the Palestinian public is supportive of abductions — particularly when they target soldiers or settlers, and doubly so when such actions are carried out while 250 Palestinian prisoners are on hunger strike.
Still, this kind of incident right now could have grave consequences for the Islamist group and create an immediate threat to its leaders in the Gaza Strip.
There is always the possibility that another organization — notably Islamic Jihad or a Salafi group — is to blame.
On Friday night the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — the same al-Qaeda-affiliated group which recently conquered large parts of Iraq — issued a notice in which it claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, saying it had done so to avenge the killing of three of its men last November near the village of Yatta, not far from where searches have been taking place Friday and Saturday.
So far it is the only claim of responsibility for the abduction, but its credibility is unclear. The announcement could also be an attempt to mislead Israeli security forces, like Hamas’s attempt in 1994 to mislead the Shin Bet after the abduction of Nachshon Wachsman to the West Bank; the group sent Israel a video tape of its demands via Gaza, to fool Israel into thinking Wachsman was being held there.
This attack likely shuts the door on any lingering possibility of renewed peace negotiations between Israel and the PA, given President Mahmoud Abbas’s insistence, as a prerequisite, that Israel release the fourth batch of 30 Palestinian prisoners who were expected to go free at the end of March.
Abbas, who has directed his subordinates to assist Israel in finding the three missing teens, is also losing big-time in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian public, which wants to see more abductions for the purpose of prisoner releases.
The Palestinian president, who opposes the use of violence, is aware of the mood in the Palestinian public in light of the prisoner hunger strike, yet recognizes that he must assist the Israelis in locating the three teenagers.
The Israeli government’s attempt to place responsibility for the attack on the Palestinian Authority, and to link the kidnappings to the establishment of the new Hamas-backed Palestinian government (in which there are no members of Hamas), appears somewhat disingenuous. The Palestinian security apparatuses have thwarted abductions of Israelis – settlers and soldiers – on many occasions, and Israel is well aware of this. Perhaps this is the reason that, even as the Israeli government was blaming the PA for the incident, communication channels between Israeli coordination officials and their Palestinian counterparts remained open throughout Friday.
The Palestinian street, meanwhile, has responded with celebratory shots in the air in refugee camps, fireworks and other such nonsense. Hamas seeks to seize this momentum and is calling on the Palestinian public to confront and provoke Israeli forces as they search the Hebron area — and thus to effectively confront the PA as well.
The mystery concerning the fate of the three youths stands. Even though the kidnapping occurred in the West Bank, where Israel possesses good intelligence, there are barely any leads. The three were kidnapped near Alon Shvut, north of Hebron, while the car that Israel suspects may have been used in the abduction (but which may in fact have nothing to do with it) was found burned near Dura, southwest of Hebron. It is not clear whether the three were indeed in this car and taken alive to the Dura area.
As the hours pass with no new piece of information on the location of the three, fear grows that the kidnappers did not seek to kidnap and negotiate over hostages at all, but to kill their victims and then, perhaps, dispose of the bodies. As each hour passes, the likelihood of a happy resolution to this dark incident recedes.