The Israel Defense Forces carried out a drill in the West Bank on Thursday simulating a kidnapping, a scenario similar to the deadly events that preceded the 2014 Gaza war.
Troops from the Judea and Samaria Division took part in the week-long drill that practiced a scenario where a kidnapping takes place and troops had to locate the suspect and free the hostage.
Lt. Yossi Eliaz, commander of the Rotem Battalion in the Givati Brigade, said that while there hasn’t been a kidnapping since the deadly abduction of three Israeli teenagers in 2014, it is a scenario that could happen again.
The drill lasted two days and saw troops under Eliaz’s command practice complicated kidnapping scenarios, where troops have to enter Palestinian villages in order to find the civilian hostages. During the searches, troops encountered scenarios of violent rioting, something the military knows soldiers face in real events.
It took troops 12 hours to find the hostages and arrest the suspect along with special forces from the military’s commando Duvdevan and Maglan units.
“There’s always the pressure to provide security,” Eliaz said. “The quiet is because of the work by the defense establishment, but something can happen and we have to do everything to make sure it doesn’t come to pass.”
The IDF carried out a similar surprise exercise last year during a large-scale drill with thousands of troops taking part. The surprise exercise launched by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi simulated the military’s response to a kidnapping, examining the division’s ability to handle such a scenario and the cooperation between the military and other bodies.
Alongside the IDF were officers from the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), police and civilian bodies like Magen David Adom rescue services and firefighters.
In 2014, a Hamas cell operating in the West Bank kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers from a popular hitchhiking spot in Gush Etzion. The IDF launched Operation Brother’s Keeper in order to find 16-year-olds Naftali Frenkel and Gilad Shaer, and 19-year-old Eyal Yifrah. Their bodies were found on June 26, two weeks after they were kidnapped.
The IDF arrested 350 Palestinians during the operation, including several Hamas leaders in the West Bank. In retaliation for the arrests, Hamas began launching rocket fire into Israel from the Gaza Strip, leading Israel to launch Operation Protective Edge with the stated intent to stop rocket fire.
The 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas lasted seven weeks and led to the death of 67 soldiers and six Israeli civilians, and 2,125 Palestinians including 936 terrorists and 761 civilians.
Two months after the kidnapping, senior Hamas official Salah al-Arouri, considered Hamas’s military commander in the West Bank and since appointed as the group’s deputy leader, said that the organization’s Izzadin al-Qassam Brigades was behind the kidnapping.
Since then the IDF has improved the level of intelligence gathering and sharing in the West Bank in an attempt to stay one step ahead of deadly terror attacks.
The system includes an increase in surveillance cameras and other sensors in key West Bank locations, including advanced computer analytics and visual intelligence that are all connected to one main system in a special operations room.
The military says the system assists in identifying imminent threats, foiling attacks in real-time, and preventing manhunts of terrorists who escape following an attack.
“Today we have a lot more sensors and other systems that can be used,” Eliaz said, explaining that due to the new capabilities they are able to gather and use precise intelligence as well as other forces more often.
But despite the new technology, the IDF needs to always think of future attacks.
“We need to be ready and prepare for them,” he said.
A report by The Washington Post said that part of the system is facial recognition technology that is building a digital surveillance database of residents of the Palestinian city of Hebron. According to the report, the system is based in part on a smartphone technology called Blue Wolf that captures photos of Hebron residents’ faces and matches them to a mass database.
Eliaz said that despite the atmosphere on the ground being “stable and relatively quiet,” there are certain parts of the West Bank that have seen a rise in violence by Jewish settlers against Palestinians.
A report by the NGO B’Tselem said that there have been 451 documented settler attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank. Israeli forces were said to have not intervened in 170 of them, and as a result, five Palestinians were killed and 22 arrested.
B’Tselem said the military “does not prevent the attacks, and in some cases, soldiers even participate in them.” It said that law enforcement does little to take action against settlers who commit violent acts against Palestinians “and whitewashes the few cases it is called upon to address.”