A kidnapping with origins in the Shalit deal

If Hamas is behind the abduction of three Israeli teens, Israel is unlikely to exercise restraint, and we could see an upsurge in hostilities with long-term consequences

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

At his press conference on Saturday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that a terrorist organization was responsible for kidnapping Gil-ad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach on Thursday night, and then devoted considerable focus to the recent Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement.

It was as though he considered this pact to be the key problem. He said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s pact with Hamas was bringing grave results, and that their joint government was “not something that Israel can accept.”

Netanyahu’s focus ignored two central aspects of the kidnapping, however.

First, he neglected to mention that before the Fatah-Hamas deal was signed, there were dozens of attempts to kidnap Israelis and these were all thwarted by the Israeli Shin Bet and/or PA intelligence services. The PA’s jails currently hold dozens of Hamas and Islamic Jihad members, arrested for involvement in these thwarted attempts. The Shin Bet and IDF Military Intelligence know this full well. The prime minister apparently does not.

And second, Netanyahu chose to ignore his part in this terrible sequence of events. As the former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin highlighted on Saturday night,  Netanyahu was the prime minister who approved the release of 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners, many of them killers, in exchange for the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Gaza in 2011. Anybody closely familiar with the Palestinian sphere at the time of that prisoner deal knew that the countdown to the next kidnapping had begun there and then; unfortunately, the result arrived on Thursday night in Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with IDF Chief of STaff Benny Gantz, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Chief of the SHin Bet Intelligence Yoram Cohen and Director of the Mossad, Tamir Pardo at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, to discuss the disappearance of three Jewish teenagers near Hebron, in the West Bank, June 14, 2014. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with IDF Chief of STaff Benny Gantz, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Chief of the SHin Bet Intelligence Yoram Cohen and Director of the Mossad, Tamir Pardo at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, to discuss the disappearance of three Jewish teenagers near Hebron, in the West Bank, June 14, 2014. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

Meanwhile, despite suspicions that the terrorists responsible for the kidnapping were hiding out in the Hebron area, it was life as usual in the Palestinian side of the city on Saturday morning.

Poor. Neglected. Overcrowded. No IDF soldiers to be seen, no Palestinian forces either. On Friday there had been clashes between Israeli troops and Hamas supporters, and fireworks to “celebrate” the kidnapping. But not on Saturday.

Overnight Friday-Saturday, 16 arrests were made in the city; two of those held were women. Many people recognize that these were likely only the first steps in the Israeli effort to find the three kidnapped teenagers, the calm before the storm. By Saturday night, there were IDF troops visible in the city.

It’s no secret that there’s widespread support for Hamas in the Hebron area. The city is not festooned with green Hamas flags or posters of Hamas leaders, but it has been the Islamists’ West Bank stronghold for decades. Speaking to this reporter, a local gas station attendant named Ahmad issued a ripe curse for the Jews for arresting an 18-year-old woman who he said had just gotten married.

There is no clear proof at this stage that Hamas was involved in the kidnapping. Senior Hamas officials are expressing delight at the “successful” operation and encouraging confrontation with Israeli security forces, but they know that today’s “success” will have a price tomorrow, possibly a costly one.

If Hamas is found to be responsible for an incident of this gravity, Israel is unlikely to exercise restraint. That could mean the targeting of Hamas leaders in Gaza, and the arrests of Hamas leaders in the West Bank. And that, in turn, would likely bring a Hamas response, including rocket fire from Gaza on Israel cities including Tel Aviv. So Israel could easily find itself embroiled in a strategic upsurge of hostility that would reshape the security environment for some years. If, that is, again, it becomes clear that Hamas kidnapped the three Israeli teenagers.

Whoever was responsible, it must be said, the cell that carried out the kidnapping showed a greater professionalism than the other terrorists who have been confronting Israel in the territories. One can imagine that the kidnappers might have dressed up in Jewish garb in order to entice the three into their car (or cars) without arousing their fears of a kidnapping.

Even if the Israelis were forced into a vehicle at the point of a gun, that also requires preparation — the car, the weaponry, a hiding place, food… The terrorists would have had to overcome the three youngsters, possibly transfer them later to a getaway vehicle, and get them to the hideout, without leaving tracks or witnesses that could expose them.

There are many aspects of the kidnapping still under censorship, but those Israeli officials familiar with what little has been revealed acknowledge that the terror cell may have been preparing this operation for months.

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