Hamas Kidnapping Reminiscent of Hezbollah

Kidnappers received a gift they hadn’t expected - nearly six hours of total quiet before Israeli security forces launched a search operation.

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Israeli soldiers on a search operation for the three kidnapped teenagers outside Hebron, June 15, 2014.
Israeli soldiers on a search operation for the three kidnapped teenagers outside Hebron, June 15, 2014.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Shin Bet security service officials dealing with the release of Hamas prisoners when Gilad Shalit was handed back to Israel in October 2011 were asked after the exchange who they thought would be the first to return to committing terror attacks. Their response was unequivocal: The group’s operatives from the Hebron area, Hamas’ most stubborn and determined cell.

Ever since the deal, the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet have arrested dozens of released prisoners in the West Bank, including some Hamas men from the Hebron area. Over the past couple of years, there have been serious attacks in that region that were never solved, chief among them last October’s murder of Givati soldier Gal “Gavriel” Kobi and the murder of Israel Police Chief Supt. Baruch Mizrahi in April, on Passover eve.

The people behind those attacks were careful about two things – high-level performance and strict compartmentalization. Those who fired dozens of bullets at Mizrahi’s car as it made its way to Kiryat Arba prepared an escape route in advance and immediately went underground, where they’ve remained since. The kidnapping of the three teenagers in Gush Etzion last Thursday exhibits similar characteristics.

At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said what he’d only hinted at the night before – that Hamas is responsible for the kidnapping. He was basing his claim on intelligence data that had been collected on Saturday.

Over the past couple of days Israel has arrested more than 100 Palestinians, mostly Hamas men, along with a few members of Islamic Jihad. Those arrested included most of Hamas’ political leadership in the West Bank, including former ministers and members of parliament. But there were also field operatives, residents of the Hebron region, who might know something – at least about the outer ring of the terror cell.

While one does not want to excessively glorify terrorists who snatched unarmed youths and are liable to harm them, what is known of Thursday’s attack points to a level of planning and performance that is exceptional compared to previous abduction attempts – nearly all of which were foiled by Israel in recent years. The attack is reminiscent of the carefully planned abductions of IDF soldiers by Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border.

Netanyahu translated the accumulating information about the abduction into political accusations against Hamas in Gaza. The professionals were being a bit more cautious. While they also believe it’s highly probable that the kidnapping was done by a Hamas cell in Hebron, they aren’t at all sure if the action went through an approval process with the Gaza leadership, or whether it was a local initiative by a cell interested in pressing Israel to release more prisoners.

We know that dozens of such attempts were made before the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, so Thursday’s attack isn’t necessarily linked to it, as Netanyahu tried to claim – especially since it probably took a long time to plan. The Hamas leadership Sunday denied it was responsible, and also denied knowing who was.

During consultations Netanyahu held with security officials, it was decided to take other steps against Hamas in the West Bank beyond the arrests, though these may well play out over several weeks, unrelated to the efforts at finding the missing teenagers.

The Palestinian Authority will condemn these measures publicly, but will secretly welcome them. The kidnapping has seriously embarrassed PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and the Palestinian security apparatus is helping Israel search for the kidnapped teens. “They are helping us out of what they see as the Palestinian interest,” a senior IDF officer said Sunday.

Unfortunately, this does not guarantee that the affair will end well. It’s rare that kidnapping squads keep their hostages alive; the fear of being discovered usually dictates that hostages are killed.

Valuable time was lost before Israel began its pursuit, with the kidnappers receiving a gift they certainly hadn’t expected – nearly six hours of total quiet, during which time they could hide their victims and cover some of their tracks. It was only at around 3 A.M. Friday, when the Shaar family reported to the Talmon security coordinator that their son Gilad had never come home, that the security establishment started taking the case seriously.

Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Frenkel and Gilad Shaer.

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