The defense establishment’s response to Hamas’s kidnapping of three Israeli youths can in some ways be compared to a campaign of air strikes in Gaza.
Instead of fighter jets striking Hamas targets, ground forces head out on nightly raids against Hamas members, selecting their targets based on a highly reliable intelligence database.
Instead of a mission ending when a missile strikes a target and destroys it, it ends when infantry forces have a Hamas member in custody, in an army jeep, en route to the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) for questioning, in the hope that the arrest will provide an intelligence breakthrough.
A week into the kidnapping crisis, nearly 300 Palestinian security suspects – most of them Hamas – are in custody, and almost 1,000 homes have been searched, meaning that the IDF’s Central Command is running one of the largest counter-terrorism operations in the West Bank since Operation Defensive Shield, launched in 2002 to extinguish a wave of suicide bombings.
The dramatic number of arrests, and the targeting of Hamas media as well as its civilian bodies used to deepen the Islamist organization’s influence on Palestinian society, are not only aimed at bringing back the missing teenagers. They also represent an unmistakable attempt by Israel to roll back the organization’s new push to take over the West Bank.
It took Hamas years to begin rebuilding its terrorist-guerilla and civilian infrastructure in the West Bank, and those efforts now appear to have gone to waste.
With no end in sight to Israel's stepped-up security raids, which have seen almost the whole of Hamas's West Bank leadership taken into custody, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the kidnapping had led to a strategic downfall for Hamas.
This in turn improves Israel’s security environment, cutting short Hamas plans to convert the West Bank into a base for jihadi terrorism, as Gaza has become.
Yet the analogy to a campaign of air strikes has its limitations.
Unlike an aerial onslaught, this operation has thus far been designed to strike a delicate balance, by avoiding harm to the Palestinian Authority – whose security bodies have maintained good coordination with the IDF throughout the crisis.
Additionally, the targets in question are more amorphous than those the Israel Air Force would seek to hit in a Gazan campaign.
Instead of command- and-control centers and rocket launchers, here the targets include suspects in their homes, as well as social welfare outreach bodies designed to entrench the organization within the Palestinian consensus.
The IDF may be using large-scale forces to get the job done – 10 army brigades are involved – but force is being used in a minimal and restrained manner, to avoid inflaming the West Bank. Despite the precautions, the longer the operation continues, the higher the chances are that violent clashes, including armed exchanges, will erupt in Palestinian cities and villages during future raids.
Away from the public eye, a classified inter-agency intelligence hunt is underway for the kidnappers, and the center of gravity for this search does not appear to have left the greater Hebron region.
Security forces have made a supreme effort to keep this part of the operation under a thick fog, and the less said about it, the better.
One very important question that arises out of this situation is whether Hamas in Hebron acted independently of Hamas in Gaza, when it chose to go ahead with the kidnapping. Based on past experience, it would be surprising if Hamas in Hebron did not receive operational and organizational assistance from Hamas’s military wing in Gaza, the Izzadin Kassam Brigades.
The Kassam Brigades have been caught on several past occasions attempting to set up terrorist cells in the West Bank, and ordering them to kidnap, shoot at and bomb Israeli targets.
Security sources this week pointed to a speech by Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal in Doha, delivered last month, as a coded green light to kidnap Israelis, suggesting that the higher Hamas leadership gave the green light.
The coming days will be crucial in determining the future course of events. Looking ahead, gun battles with Palestinian terrorists in the territories during waves of arrests look increasingly likely.
In Gaza, terrorist organizations may drag the Islamist enclave into the confrontation, if rocket fire continues on southern Israel.
This week, the IDF responded to such rocket attacks with a freer hand than in the past.
Although it is not in Hamas’s interest to bring Gaza into the line of fire, the terrorist organization has already proven, through the kidnapping, that it does not always know how to safeguard its own strategic interests.