Once again Israelis are gripped by the horror of their young people being abducted, apparently by Palestinian extremists, and the army is pulling out all the stops to retrieve them.
Three West Bank religious students appear to have been taken after they left their Jewish seminaries at about 10 p.m. Thursday and hitched a ride at a popular junction in the occupied Palestinian territory. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists the militant Palestinian resistance group Hamas is to blame for the abduction and vowed swift action against it Monday.
“We’re preparing for a broad operation,” military chief of staff Benny Gantz told Israel’s Channel 2 television. “Our aim is to find the three boys, bring them home and hurt Hamas as much as possible.”
Already, Israel has rounded up the usual suspects, locking up more than 160 people said to be involved in Hamas in one way or another. They include Hassan Yousef, one of the founders of Hamas who only recently was released from prison after serving several years, and Aziz Dweik, the leader of Hamas’s political party in the West Bank and speaker of Palestinian Legislative Council since 2006.
Mr. Netanyahu called Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas on Monday saying he expects his help in finding those responsible for this crime. Though the teenagers went missing in territory fully controlled by the Israeli army, Mr. Netanyahu holds Mr. Abbas to account. He said he lectured Mr. Abbas that his unity government recently formed with Hamas is “bad for Israel, bad for Palestinians and bad for the region.”
Later, a senior Palestinian official told The Times of Israel that if it is proved Hamas was behind the abduction it would constitute a breach of the understandings between Mr. Abbas’s Fatah movement and Hamas and would void the unity agreement.
Until now no ransom demand has been made, but Israeli intelligence and security forces are operating on the assumption that the three young men – two aged 16, the other 19 – were taken by people wanting to exchange them for the release of Palestinians currently being held in Israeli prisons. Such an exchange was made in 2011 for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been held by Hamas militants for more than five years.
Other Hamas leaders, reached through intermediaries, say they have no idea who took the young Israelis, and point out that Hamas has nothing to gain from an abduction such as this.
Indeed, Hamas has much to lose, including the international acceptance that has come from many quarters because of Hamas’s efforts in forming the unity government with Mr. Abbas, one that accepts Israel and renounces violence.
A source close to Israeli intelligence, however, says that two known Hamas operatives have not been seen since the night the students disappeared, and the Israeli theory is that they are responsible.
Security forces also turned up a burned-out car on the weekend in Dura, a suburb of Hebron, that appears to have been stolen and could have been the vehicle used for the abduction.
Israeli political leaders on the right have demanded all sorts of punitive action be taken against Hamas: some advocate expelling the group’s leaders to Gaza; others want to annex parts of the West Bank, and some want to rearrest all 1,027 Palestinian prisoners who were freed in exchange for Mr. Shalit.
Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon hinted at a return to the practice of targeted killings – assassinations – of Hamas leaders.
The abduction, however, could also have been carried out by individuals, possibly family members or friends of a Palestinian prisoner currently on a hunger strike, and conducted without the knowledge of Hamas leaders.
Some 120 prisoners being held without charge under so-called administrative detention have refused food for almost two months and the Israeli parliament is debating whether to forcibly feed the men whose condition is becoming critical. The strike has prompted widespread protests against the practice of detention throughout the West Bank.
The absence of a ransom demand, however, raises the prospect that a more extreme Salafist group, several of which operate in the Hebron area, could be involved.
One group, known as Dawlat al-Islam, claimed it abducted the teenagers on the weekend in flyers that were distributed in Hebron. Israeli authorities dismissed the claim. Dawlat al-Islam is said to have connections to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has fought in Syria against the regime of Bashar al-Assad and now in Iraq.
Salafists have had a presence in religiously conservative Hebron since the 1950s, but only recently have some of them turned to violence. In November, three were killed in a shootout with Israeli security forces near Hebron.
Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar, an expert on Islamic movements and a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, wrote recently that the Salafists’ reason for turning to violence was the need to replace Hamas as “the group that raises the banner of jihad against Israel.”
Hamas, the Salafists say, has forsaken the campaign against Israel in favour of exercising power in Gaza and the West Bank.
“Animosity between the Salafists and Hamas is intense,” says Mr. Eldar, but these jihadists also are dreaded by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
“If it is the Salafists who are behind this kidnapping,” said the source close to Israeli intelligence, “the kids are dead already.”
The Palestinian Delegation in Ottawa, yesterday expressed “its concern for the three settlers reported missing in Area C of Occupied Palestine” and said “we pray for their safe return.”
“Children should be off-limits,” the Delegation said in its statement, adding, however, that “no double standards should be tolerated.”
As an example, the Delegation also condemned “the murder of a Palestinian youth by Israeli forces in Ramallah [Sunday],” and noted that this tragedy follows the killing in May of two unarmed Palestinian teenagers by Israeli forces. An inquiry recently determined the two were killed by live ammunition, an accusation the Israeli authorities have denied.