Abduction imbroglio

A massive search operation to rescue three kidnapped youths seemed to be changing into a punitive campaign against Hamas infrastructures.

A massive search operation to rescue three kidnapped youths seemed to be changing into a punitive campaign against Hamas infrastructures (photo credit: Courtesy)
A massive search operation to rescue three kidnapped youths seemed to be changing into a punitive campaign against Hamas infrastructures
(photo credit: Courtesy)
THE GOVERNMENT coalition is lucky that the three Israeli youths, Gil-Ad Shaer, 16, Naftali Fraenkel, 16 and Eyal Yifrah, 19, kidnapped June 12 in the West Bank, most probably by a Palestinian terrorist group, are yeshiva students belonging to families of “the national camp.”
Demonstrating dignified self-restraint, the families have expressed their support for the government’s actions. Their behavior stands in sharp contrast to the vociferous and hysterical demands expressed over the last 30 years by other families of kidnapped victims – usually secular – Yosef Grof, Ron Arad, Eldad Regev, Udi Goldwasser and, most recently, Gilad Shalit.
This is certainly a reflection of Israel’s deep cultural, political and moral divisions and different perceptions and attitudes toward human and national values.
The relatively quiet and tranquil atmosphere enabled the Israel Defense Forces and the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) to operate in the West Bank, in general, and the Hebron area, in particular, under the (false) impression that they have all the time in the world.
In the weeks that passed since the students were kidnapped, the Shin Bet and IDF intelligence invested enormous efforts and resources to find reliable realtime information. The intelligence agencies utilized all their collection resources – human intelligence (humint) and signalcommunication intelligence (sigint and comint).
The operation involves three intelligence circles with the hope that, in the end, the puzzle will be solved. One of the circles focuses on information obtained from Palestinian agents and collaborators operated by Shin Bet case officers. The handlers ask their sources if they have heard anything; whether someone did not show up for prayers in his mosque in the days before the incident; if people disappeared mysteriously from their village or neighborhood; if someone purchased special medications or bought a car. Trivial as the questions might sound, the answers could shed light. The second circle depends on investigating and interrogating Hamas activists, hundreds of whom were arrested in the wake of the kidnapping.
The third circle is the technological one – phones, faxes and Internet. Emails and chat rooms are bugged, intercepted and, if coded messages were used, deciphered. A huge volume of data is collected – some of which is possibly based on forensic evidence that might have been found in the burnt-out car that served the kidnappers to transport their victims. There are certain assumptions, yet the intelligence community is still in the dark about what exactly happened.
They do not know if the kidnapped students are alive or dead – though it is assumed that as time passes the chances of finding them alive grow slimmer – where they are being held, and who are their abductors.
WITHOUT SOURCING the information, the intelligence community reached the conclusion that Hamas is behind the abduction. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed to publicly accuse the Palestinian Islamist movement that rules Gaza and has a strong power base in the Hebron region. Hamas military leaders in Gaza and abroad have left no room for doubt that abduction is one of their preferred strategies and have called on their operatives to try to carry out as many kidnappings as possible.
Indeed, in the last 18 months, the Shin Bet foiled more than 50 attempts by Hamas (and the pro-Iranian Palestinian Islamic Jihad) to kidnap Israelis.
The Palestinian terror groups have realized that kidnapping Israelis – soldiers or civilians – and holding them, or their corpses, as bargaining chips is their best method to get their jailed comrades out of Israeli prisons.
Similar to Israel, which more than any other Western nation turns the fate of its abducted individuals into a national tragedy, the thousands of convicted and suspected terrorists jailed by Israel are a sensitive nerve in Palestinian society.
Past precedents (the cases mentioned earlier) proved the Palestinian point.
Consecutive governments, of Left and Right, under pressure from the families and with the tailwind of sensational and irresponsible media, have caved in and agreed to asymmetrical swaps.
Here are some outstanding examples.
In 1985, Israel released almost 1,000 terrorists in exchange for three soldiers held by a pro-Syrian Palestinian group led by Ahmad Jibril. In the 1990s, dozens of terrorists were released in exchange for the bodies of soldiers held by Hezbollah.
In 2004, Israel released more than 100 terrorists for an Israeli drug dealer Elhanan Tenenboim and the bodies of three soldiers held by Hezbollah. And, in 2011, came the worst prisoner swap ever when 1,027 terrorists were released in exchange for Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas on the Israeli side of the Gaza border.
However, the initial massive search operation, aimed at rescuing the kidnapped youths, seemed, as time went by, to change into a punitive campaign against what Israel calls Hamas infrastructures in the West Bank. On top of re-arresting 35 Hamas terrorists who were released during the Shalit deal, the security forces also detained almost 300 Hamas activists, including its top political echelon. Clinics, schools, cultural and sports clubs were searched and bank accounts confiscated.
Hebron and its surrounding towns and villages were placed under military closure – short of a curfew. Tens of thousands of workers and tradesmen were refused entry to Israel and prevented from traveling abroad.
One has the impression of déjà vu. In 2007, after the military coup by Hamas in Gaza, which toppled the Palestinian Authority (PLO) regime, similar measures were adopted by Israel – arrests, money confiscation, shutting down offices – in hopes of weakening Hamas and strengthening the PLO. It did not work then, so why should it be effective now? Another impression emerging from the expanded rescue operation is that it is aimed to placate the Israeli public and show that its political and military leaders are taking decisive action. This feeling is enhanced by endless TV appearances of leaders, such as Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and others in the company of the troops in action. The leaders provide clichés, such as “the need to fight terrorism” and reveal minor details about the military operation but not the really important answers to the questions: What does Israel really want to achieve? What is Israel’s strategy? Is there any strategy? True, the game played behind the scenes is rather complicated. It involves three players: Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. After slamming PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Netanyahu rushed to exchange appeasing messages, asking him to assist in the quest to “bring the boys back home.” Abbas agreed, instructing his security services to enhance coordination and search efforts with their Israeli counterparts knowing that this clandestine cooperation already has been in place for a couple of years. It was the PA’s security services, which tried to restrain and calm the population to avoid confrontation with Israeli troops.
Abbas went further by denouncing the kidnapping during an Arab League meeting in Saudi Arabia. Yet, so far, he refuses, as is being demanded by Netanyahu, to disband the national unity government between the PA and Hamas. Nevertheless, PA officials have hinted that if it turns out, as Israel claims, that Hamas is responsible for the kidnapping, the already fragile alliance between the two rival factions of the Palestinian camp will come to an end.
Let’s assume that indeed Hamas is behind the kidnapping and that Israel provides the clear-cut evidence that leads to the breakup of the Hamas-PA government. Will the Israeli government then go back to the negotiating table and be ready to make genuine concessions to achieve peace? Most likely, the answer is negative, which brings us back to the strategy question.
It seems that Netanyahu and his cabinet want to smash Hamas and force the PA and Abbas to get on their knees and be Israel’s puppet.
Such a policy may show how shortsighted Israeli leaders are. Recent regional events – the rise of Muslim jihadists, inspired by Osama Bin Laden’s notion of holy war against the infidel, primarily Israel – should serve as a warning sign.
If Israel refuses to negotiate in good faith and compromise with the moderate PA, it could be faced by a more dangerous and intransigent enemy, such as Hamas, or the Palestinian version of Al-Qaida.