HEBRON, West Bank — The buses filled with soldiers from the squad commanders school stopped on the Trans-Judea Highway midday on Tuesday. Hundreds of soldiers descended carefully into the riverbeds north of the road, part of the village of Beit Kahil, north of Hebron.
The future commanders, carrying guns and unwieldy combat vests — some of them wearing antiquated flak jackets, unlikely to help much in the event of an attack — began a careful search of the area. Lines of soldiers moved between houses, peering into caves, wells, and courtyards. This time too, just like the previous 11 days, to no avail.
The night before, the soldiers had found a collection of hand grenades and sniper rifles in a home, but not the kidnappers of Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gil-ad Shaar, or the three teens themselves. The Hebron sector is huge, full of little canyons and hiding places that an entire army would have trouble searching fully — assuming, that is, the teens are still in the area. The kidnappers had enough time on the night of the kidnapping, June 12 — seven hours before the security services realized what had happened — and plenty of means of reaching every point in the territories, or within the Green Line, if they wanted.
Just four years ago, Palestinian security forces found a house in the Haris neighborhood on the northern outskirts of Hebron — which overlooks the road where the buses parked this week — out of which ran a tunnel that almost reached the Trans-Judea Highway. Hamas, it appears, had dug the tunnel to carry out attacks on the road, then escape. The lesson from that incident, and from the endless sweeps of the past two weeks, is that without an accurate indication, the location of the kidnappers or the victims will be hard, perhaps even impossible, to establish.
That is what led to the decision of IDF commanders earlier this week to reduce the profile of the search operations on the ground as long as there is no specific intelligence information. But that wasn’t the only factor. The operation, which has also been directed against the wider Hamas infrastructure, was always going to wind down once the security establishment internalized that, on the eve of Ramadan, which starts on Saturday, the overt presence of the IDF would not lead to the release or finding of the teens, but would instead inflame passions.
The frustration of the Palestinian public in the territories could be seen in a series of clashes with Israeli security forces, and as we saw on Saturday night, in an attack on a Palestinian Authority police station, an event that neither Israel nor the PA wants to see again.
And it seems that the drawdown in Hebron has eased the atmosphere a little. On Tuesday afternoon, the city looked like one big shopping center. Thousands of people on shopping sprees turned the heart of the city into a huge traffic jam — extraordinary even for the normally crowded Hebron.
In various places throughout the city, one could still see signs supporting the “salt and water” hunger-strike campaign by prisoners in Israeli administrative detention, the main cause of unrest in recent weeks.
But that same night, the announcement went out that the prisoners had decided to end their hunger strike, with almost nothing in return. To put it simply, the strikers realized that they had suffered a resounding defeat in their attempt to end administrative detentions or to put the issue at the heart of the international Palestinian agenda.
Ironically, what caused the 63-day strike to fail was the action that most strongly identified with their campaign: the kidnapping of the three Israeli teens. In the shadow of the World Cup, the kidnapping, the mass arrests throughout the West Bank, and the upcoming Ramadan, the hunger strikers understood their campaign just didn’t interest anyone.
The prisoners’ hoisting of the white flag constitutes a Hamas failure to some extent. For weeks, Fatah and PA officials claimed that Hamas stood behind the strike and was using it to ignite the territories. Fatah representatives sounded joyous when they discussed the ignominious end of the prisoners’ protest action. And just like the hunger strike, the kidnapping has become a weapon for Fatah to use against its Hamas rival.
While Hamas kidnapped the three Israeli teenagers in a move designed to boost support for the organization, and primarily to embarrass Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president went on an unprecedented attack against the kidnappers, and threatened to deal with them when their identities were discovered.
The internal Fatah-Hamas reconciliation process, so recently depicted by the Israeli government as a massive threat to the country’s well-being, has turned since the kidnapping into an unrealistic notion, not yet formally canceled but rapidly disappearing from the agenda of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Abbas’s firm stance against the kidnappers has also shattered the Israeli public’s apathy toward the Palestinians and the PA. Suddenly, hordes of mainstream journalists are writing empathetically about the “leader” of the Palestinians, reviving the idea that Israel has a potential peace partner.
But Abbas is paying, and will continue to pay, a heavy price for a stance that is not popular among his people. The PA is losing its grip on, and the support of, its public – a public now demonstrably prepared to attack its own representatives, its own policemen, in the heart of its administrative capital, Ramallah.
Abbas is also experiencing how lonely it is to be a leader taking a stance at odds with his people. No Fatah or PA officials are standing prominently by him. Suddenly, officials who have given countless interviews to the press in the past — such as the head of the PA negotiating team, Saeb Erekat, his former colleague on the team Mohammad Shtayyeh, and many others — have disappeared. They haven’t mustered a word about the kidnapping, not a word in defense of their president.
Senior Fatah officials’ heads are in another place right now. In a month-and-a-half, Fatah’s seventh general conference is expected to take place, during which the leadership of the organization will be elected — both the Fatah Central Committee and the Fatah Revolutionary Council. No one at this stage wants to come across as insufficiently patriotic by criticizing a kidnapping which, after all, might result in the release of prisoners.
Mohammad Dahlan and his associates will not participate in the conference, because of the tensions between them and Abbas. Still, it will be interesting to see who is elected to the top spot in the Central Committee, earning the title of general secretary. In theory, the title doesn’t have much meaning. But the person chosen for the position will be considered the most popular figure in Fatah after Abbas, or in other words, his successor.
For now, it seems that Marwan Barghouti is the leading candidate. But it’s still hard to say what coalitions we’ll see forming among senior Fatah members. Jibril Rajoub could surprise, as could one of the veteran members of the movement, Ahmed Qurei, the former PA prime minister who failed to win a seat on the Central Committee at the last general conference, because of a targeted political strike that Abbas’s associates performed on him.
The kidnappers and Hamas
It’s not easy these days to be a Shin Bet field agent operating in Hebron. The mission to find the teens and their kidnappers — to locate what the Hebrew media calls “the golden clue” — falls on these agents’ shoulders. But the mission is problematic, to say the least.
A former senior official in the PA security services told The Times of Israel this week that when his people have managed in the past to arrest cells planning a kidnapping and interrogate them, it has become clear how easy it is to simply disappear. The first thing that came up in the interrogations is that members of these cells (the more serious ones, anyway) had prepared a hiding place ahead of time. It was usually a basement or tunnel, and there are thousands upon thousands of such spaces under the homes of Hebron.
In 2012, the PA found a hideout like this in the village of Urif, in the Nablus area of the northern West Bank. That cell’s plan was to bring the intended Israeli victim there and hold him for a significant period of time.
“There was electricity there, maybe a television and of course, a lot of food and drink. The kidnappers go underground and hide, and the question is when they will need to leave the hiding place,” the official told The Times of Israel. “The problem is that the moment they disconnect their cellphones and get rid of them, the ability to figure out where they are is extremely limited.”
In the case of the three kidnapped Israeli teens, the identity of the kidnappers was known from almost the very start and has now been made public — Marwan Kawasme, 29, and Amer Abu Aysha, 32. They lived close to the Trans-Judea Highway, in Hebron’s Haris neighborhood. They prayed at the same mosque. One used to visit the other’s home in order to get his children’s hair cut.
These are dedicated Hamas members. Not the kind who have a weak and covert connection to the movement, but those who grew up at the feet of more senior members. (Because of the Israeli censor, I cannot go into more detail.)
Beyond the question of the kidnappers’ identities, another question is on the minds of the IDF and the Shin Bet right now: Who helped the two and their cell to create the infrastructure for the kidnapping? Did they act on their own, or did they receive financial and material backing from other sources?
It is always possible that the Hebron cell acted alone. But it’s more likely, given the logistical demands (hiding place, food, car, etc.), that others helped them, at least financially.
A security official said last week that Saleh al-Arouri, who is from the West Bank but currently lives in Turkey, is suspected of helping the cell in advance of the kidnapping. But security sources also said they don’t have proof of this.
At the same time, senior PA security officials claim that the planners are central Hamas figures, who wanted primarily to torpedo the reconciliation efforts. According to these officials, there is, today, a significant group in the Islamist organization deeply opposed to reconciliation with Fatah on the terms to which the Gaza leadership agreed.
“They did not agree to give up ruling Gaza, or to the way that the Hamas leadership in Gaza failed to find a solution to the problem of employees’ salaries. For them, the kidnapping was a real chance to strengthen public support for the organization, on the one hand, and to stop the reconciliation, on the other.”
After all, what is more effective than kidnapping three Israelis in order to settle intra-Palestinian political scores?