The most important thing at this time is to bring Gil-Ad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Fraenkel home safely to their families as quickly as possible.
The fact that it is not absolutely clear who is responsible for their abduction and that no demands have been made does not necessarily mean that they are not still alive and well. There is a massive manhunt ongoing and the abductors are most likely not in the position to communicate with anyone outside of their hiding place without being discovered.
If Hamas is in fact responsible for their abduction, the chances of the boys remaining alive and well are quite high, because Hamas will clearly desire to trade them for Palestinian prisoners. In any case the captors are in no rush to announce their responsibility or to issue their demands. Time is on their side.
If it is Hamas, which I admit I have great doubts about, the operation was probably decided by the cell which undertook it, without the direct participation of either Hamas’s military wing Izzadin Kassam, or its political wing. However, even if no organizational decision was made to abduct the Israeli teens, Hamas may be forced to claim responsibility and take charge of any possible negotiations. In such a scenario, the negotiations will most likely be undertaken by Hamas personalities outside of Palestine and therefore more difficult for Israel to reach.
My doubts regarding Hamas’s responsibility stem from among other things conversations with several Hamas leaders in Gaza. In those conversations, immediately after the abductions became known to the public and later as well, it was quite clear that those with whom I spoke with had no knowledge of the kidnapping.
They said they could not imagine Hamas having undertaken the operation. It also seemed to me to be illogical that Hamas was behind it.
The Israeli intelligence people I have spoken to, on the other hand, are 100 percent convinced Hamas is behind the operation. I don’t have access to the raw data that they have collected. A large part of the belief that Hamas is responsible is apparently based on the two Hamas operatives who disappeared last Thursday – the night of the abduction.
My reason for doubting Hamas’s involvement is that the single most important thing to Hamas right now is to assure its continued ability to rule Gaza. The single largest threat to its power base in Gaza is its isolation from Egypt and the total dependence of Gaza on Israel.
The Rafah crossing to Egypt is Gaza’s lifeline and Hamas believes that it is essential to have it opened.
This is so important to Hamas that they capitulated to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on every single issue in the reconciliation negotiations, that led to the national reconciliation government consisting of not a single Hamas member.
Even on the issue of deployment of forces along the Rafah border, Hamas agreed that troops loyal to Abbas would be stationed there. On the issue of the integration of Hamas military forces into the PA security apparatus, Hamas agreed to request the assistance of Egyptian President Abdel Sisi to come up with a plan. This is the same Sisi that declared Hamas a terrorist organization and shut down some 1,000 smuggling tunnels into Gaza.
Hamas is well aware that if it were to carry out such a kidnapping operation, the agreement with Abbas would be over and Rafah would not be opened. It is true that Hamas would then be in the position to negotiate for the release of Palestinian prisoners, but this is not likely to occur very quickly. Hamas also remembers quite well that while it held Gilad Schalit for five years and four months, over 3,000 Gazans were killed and the entire economy of Gaza was brought to its knees. It gained the prize of 1027 prisoners, but paid a very heavy price.
We must also remember that the West Bank is not Gaza. Israeli intelligence in the West Bank is perhaps the best in the world. If the boys are alive, their captors will have to come out for supplies or have supplies delivered to them. There will have to be some kind of communication between them and those who will be authorized to negotiate.
In the meantime, I would imagine that they are hiding somewhere underground. There are hundreds, if not more, caves, wells, cisterns and other possible hiding places in the south Hebron hills. During the second intifada hundreds of wanted Palestinian combatants hid in those hills and caves without being caught. Most of those who were caught were picked up when making a visit to their families or coming back into the towns and cities for food and supplies.
My guess would be that the operation was either carried by a local group, not necessarily associated with a movement but with good organization, or by a salafi-jihadi group.
You don’t have to be master terrorist to abduct Israelis in the West Bank or in Israel proper. There are enough young Israelis traveling at all hours of the night and day all around the country. The kidnappers probably used a stolen car – one that they either stole themselves or that they bought in the Hebron area.
There are many of these stolen Israeli cars available and for sale.
They had to prepare a hiding place with supplies.
Most of the people in the region know of many such places, especially because many of the people living in the area are Beduin or have Beduin roots. They have wandered these areas for hundreds of years. They had to have some friends pick them up from the burnt getaway car and take them to a safe, prepared hiding place.
Not terribly complicated, and they also had the advantage of an eight-hour lead.
It could also be a salafi-jihadi group that was inspired by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. There are probably at least 10,000 members of Hizb al Tahrir in the greater Hebron area. This group has not been a major target of the intelligence community because until now it has appeared to be an “intellectual” group mainly preparing the ground for a return to the good old days of the Prophet. This group has not been based on an ideology of violence, because it believes the time is not right. But the successes of ISIS in Iraq and Syria could have pushed the button.
For the sake of the boys, it would be much better if it was a local organization wanting to free relatives in Israeli prisons, or Hamas, than these salafi groups; the latter would probably be much more interested in killing Jews than freeing Palestinians from prison.
I believe that the best chance of finding them quickly is to working hand-in-hand with the Palestinian security forces whose knowledge of the area, coupled with Israeli intelligence, provides the best asset for the search. It would also be wise not to be locked into the conception that Hamas is responsible, because it could turn out that it was not Hamas.
The author is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas from The Toby Press.