The IDF is poised to reduce the scope of raids launched on Hamas members and organizations in the West Bank, but will continue large-scale searches for abducted Israeli youths Naftali Fraenkel, Gil- Ad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah, a senior military officer said Monday.
“The operation against Hamas wasn’t born with the kidnapping, and won’t end when we find the abducted teenagers. This is a focused effort, one which has reached exhaustion,” the source said.
Restrictions in the Hebron region, designed to stop the kidnappers from moving the abducted youths, will remain in place.
“This isn’t a punishment against the Palestinian people in any way,” the source stressed. “There is no decrease in the number of soldiers [on the ground] or our search efforts,” he said.
With the IDF seizing around NIS 3 million from Hamas civil outreach organizations, as well as other assets, those not yet raided have hidden their cash or converted it to other forms, the source said.
“There’s no point doing this [the raids] again and coming up with nothing. There are consequences to these operations, which touch on the standing of [PA Authority President] Abu Mazen, the PA’s security forces, the fact that Ramadan is coming up, and the Gazan arena. There are many changing variables,” he continued.
In the coming days, the army will be able to rule out growing numbers of areas where the kidnapped Israelis may be, particularly regions that are not in the greater Hebron area.
“There is a process of elimination going on, and at the same time, we are focusing our efforts in where we think they might be,” the source said.
The source praised what he said was a proportional and balanced IDF response to the kidnapping. The fact that some 4,000 soldiers are carrying out operational activity at night, and that resulting clashes and casualties have been minimal, is testament to the proportional nature of the military’s operations, he said.
Ten days after the Israelis went missing, the IDF continues to assume they are alive, and has received no information to the contrary, the source added.
Investigations of various individuals of interest continue, and the investigation is making slow, steady progress, he said.
“They [the kidnappers] know our working methods.
They knew they had to disappear in a heavily populated area,” said the source.
The source said he thinks the Palestinian public understands that the IDF’s operation is targeting Hamas rather than ordinary residents.
“They understand the severity of the kidnapping, and expected this response,” the source said. “They know the line has been crossed, and that this has consequences.”
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon visited soldiers in the Hebron region on Monday and told them that finding the three teens was the IDF’s “number one” mission. In pursuit of that goal, he said, every cistern, pit and building, must be searched.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Monday night said that “Israel’s working assumption” was that theteenagers were alive and in Judea and Samaria. He reiterated that Hamas had kidnapped the teenagers.
Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal denied Monday that his organization has any information about the kidnapping of three Israeli teens in the West Bank on June 13, but he applauded their abduction as the capture of three “soldier settlers.”
“We don’t have any information about the missing three soldier-settlers,” Hamas supreme leader Khaled Mashaal was quoted as saying by Palimes, a website aligned with the group. “If indeed there was a capture, those who did it must be saluted.”
Last week security sources said that a May speech by Mashaal in Doha may have been a signal for Hamas in Hebron to move ahead with the kidnapping of the Israeli teens.
One of the sources said he believes the kidnappers did not receive an official “operational order” to kidnap the Israelis.
“Based on my knowledge of them [Hamas in the West Bank], they do not receive such orders,” he said.
Instead, the source said, “they heard a speech by Mashaal at the end of May, in which he read out a letter,” sent by a Hamas prisoner speaking of his hardships.
Tovah Lazaroff, Reuters, and Sam Sokol contributed to this report