IDF commander: Hamas’s plan to free prisoners has backfired

Many more Hamas members have been arrested following kidnapping, officer notes; Netanyahu and Ya’alon say progress made in hunt for Israeli teens

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Israeli soldiers take part in a search operation for three Israeli teenagers believed kidnapped by Palestinian militants, early on June 18, 2014 in the West Bank town of Nablus. (photo credit: AFP/Jaafar Ashtiyeh)
Israeli soldiers take part in a search operation for three Israeli teenagers believed kidnapped by Palestinian militants, early on June 18, 2014 in the West Bank town of Nablus. (photo credit: AFP/Jaafar Ashtiyeh)

Hamas’s attempt to release prisoners from Israeli detention by means of the kidnapping of three yeshiva students has backfired, the head of the IDF’s Central Command, Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, said Thursday, pointing out that the group had suffered many new arrests following the abduction.

In a letter penned to troops involved in Operation Brother’s Keeper, Alon, who is in charge of IDF forces in the West Bank, explained that the wave of arrests of Hamas members — 50 of whom had been released as part of the prisoner swap for the return of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011 — undermined the terror group’s original aim.

“The arrest of 50 terrorists freed as part of the Shalit deal by our forces will delay their return for many years. Thus, Hamas’s attempt to release prisoners brought about the opposite result,” he wrote.

A statement from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s office on Thursday condemned the arrest of the former prisoners, saying it “constitutes a gross violation of the [Shalit] release agreement.”

Among the 50 convicts freed in 2011 and rearrested Wednesday overnight, four were in the midst of serving double life sentences; 13 had been serving life sentences; 19 had been sentenced to over 20 years; and five had been slapped with sentences of up to 20 years. The convictions included murder, manslaughter, producing weapons, maintaining contact with the enemy, and shooting attacks.

Following a situation report with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that progress had been made in the hunt for the missing teenagers and in the crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank.

“We know more today than we knew a few days ago, but there is still a ways to go,” Netanyahu said at a press conference, urging patience. The prime minister called on Abbas to break his pact with the “murderous terror organization” Hamas.

“In the Book of Psalms it is said, ‘I have pursued mine enemies, and overtaken them,'” Netanyahu said, quoting the Bible. “I promise you: I will purse mine enemies and overtake them and we will do everything to bring our boys back home.”

Ya’alon, speaking immediately after the prime minister, reiterated that the Israeli efforts had broken ground.

“We are progressing,” he said. “We will reach the terrorists and our kidnapped boys eventually,” he vowed.

Ya’alon also warned that if the southern front continues to see rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, “we will know what to do.”

In his letter Thursday, Alon also encouraged soldiers to be patient, as the operation was likely to continue for some time.

Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon (photo credit: IDF Spokesman/Flash90)
Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon (photo credit: IDF Spokesman/Flash90)

“The fight against terrorism, and Hamas in particular, is an ongoing campaign that has persisted for years, and is expected to continue to be part of the reality of our lives,” he wrote.

Israeli forces have embarked on a massive campaign to locate the three kidnapped boys — Eyal Yifrach, 19, Naftali Fraenkel, 16, and Gil-ad Shaar, 16 — while simultaneously destroying parts of the Hamas terror infrastructure in the West Bank.

The military has been conducting nightly raids and sweeps in cities across the West Bank since the teenagers disappeared, arresting more than 250 suspected terrorists, many of them Hamas men, since last week.

The teenagers were last seen at a hitchhiking post in the Etzion bloc in the West Bank last Thursday night. Israel has maintained Hamas is behind the attack, but the terror organization has denied the allegations. In the past, abducted Israeli citizens were held as a bargaining chip for the release of incarcerated Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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