The wide-scale military operation dedicated to finding the three Israeli youths abducted in the West Bank switched gears this week, with the IDF phasing out nightly mass arrests of Hamas members in favor of focusing on responding to intelligence developments.
The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) has been at the steering wheel of Operation Brother’s Keeper from the start, and security sources say that the Hamas kidnappers show signs of an enemy that has studied and become well-acquainted with the domestic intelligence agency’s operational patterns.
“They [the kidnappers] know our working methods. They knew they had to disappear in a heavily populated area,” a senior security source said this week.
With the defense establishment ruling out area after area where the kidnappers and missing teenagers might be, efforts this week converged on the northwest Hebron area and have not shifted from there.
The logic behind scaling down anti-Hamas raids at this time is sound. Over 200 prominent Hamas members are in Israeli custody. Raids against Hamas’s civilian outreach bodies, called Da’awa Centers, and the seizure of cash from the terror organization’s civilian program – a total of NIS 3 million to date – reached an end.
A stopwatch began counting down to when several variables would have reached a critical point – that being a time when their action would threaten to inflame the Palestinian territories – as soon as the operation was launched.
The first of consideration is maintaining the standing of the Palestinian Authority and its security forces, which Israel wants to keep strong to avoid creating a power vacuum that would be filled by Hamas. Regardless of the debate over whether the PA is a desirable partner for Israel, its security interests coincide with those of the Jewish state and make it preferable to any other alternatives vying for power in the Palestinian arena, particularly Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
IDF sources said their assessments demonstrate that the operation has not strayed beyond the boundaries of a “sphere of legitimacy” acceptable to the Palestinian public, which helps explain the relatively low level of rioting sparked so far by the presence of 4,000 IDF soldiers from three infantry brigades involved in raids in Palestinian cities, towns and villages night after night.
Anti-Hamas raids were never directly tied to the ongoing, covert search for the missing youths.
Rather, they are aimed at stabilizing the long-term security environment by nipping the threat of a growing Hamas foothold in the West Bank in the bud.
To be sure, the IDF has not decreased its newly enhanced presence in the Palestinian territories.
It keeps a greater number of units on the ground which act as arms of the Shin Bet and enable large forces to be deployed quickly should new intelligence leads indicate the need for it.
The central question on the mind of the public – how long before the youths are found – unfortunately cannot be answered with certainty.
The duration of the current operation, and the difficulties in tracking down the Hebron-based Hamas terror cell responsible for the kidnapping, means that a small group of people – who know how to avoid any form of electronic communication and keep plans to themselves – are the likely culprits.
It seems fair to assume that the defense establishment knows far more than it is ready to reveal.
Senior security sources, however, express confidence that the Shin Bet is closing in on the kidnappers, and that a conclusion to this excruciating chapter will come sooner, rather than later.
Also this week, Israel received yet another painful reminder of the very heavy cost it continues to pay for having released 1,200 security prisoners in the Schalit exchange with Hamas in 2011.
The fact that Hamas member Ziad Awad, released in that deal, was able to take an automatic weapon, head to a road and fire on Israeli vehicles near Tarkumiya on Passover eve, killing police officer Baruch Mizrahi and injuring his wife and child, is a clear warning about the predictable consequences of wholesale releases of terrorists from prison.
Israelis can take some comfort in knowing that 54 Hamas prisoners in the West Bank, also released in the deal, have been rearrested over the past two weeks. The damage caused to national security from the Schalit deal can now be mitigated to some degree by keeping them behind bars.