“Slow but steady progress” seems to be the right way to describe events on the fourth day after the kidnapping of three Israeli teenage boys in Gush Etzion. The manhunt for the kidnappers and their victims is tightening, but it is happening step-by-step.
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Bits of information that are gathered are translated into addresses for arrest operations – first of the group’s outer circle and then, we hope, of the cell itself. So far, more than 100 Hamas operatives have been arrested in the West Bank, most of them members of its political wing. But it may cautiously be assumed that field operatives who could know something about the kidnapping are among those arrested.
According to what the media has reported so far, the investigators can rely on a series of findings: The recorded phone call from one of the teenagers to the police emergency hotline on Thursday night; two crime scenes (the hitchhiking station at the Kfar Etzion junction and the burned-out car found in the southern Hebron Hills); and the interrogations of the operatives who have been arrested.
Based on evidence submitted in previous police investigations, we may assume that intelligence is also being gathered from the surveillance and decoding of cell-phone data. Eventually, all of this could yield enough information to locate the kidnap victims and lead to an attempt to rescue them, if they are still alive.
The time that passes is not good for Israel. An analysis of prior events in which Hamas held hostages shows a cold and calculating attitude to their fate. The activists themselves are free to decide whether to keep the victims alive and use them to bargain, according to how confident they feel. Hamas’ senior command echelon does not involve itself in that.
In this case, there is no evidence indicating that the order for the kidnapping came from the Gaza Strip or a neighboring country. It might have been a local initiative by a group inside the West Bank. So far, no contact by the kidnappers to Israel – which has expressed willingness to negotiate a deal – has been reported. This could mean the cell is under pressure. It may fear that the Shin Bet security service is on its tail, so is keeping a low profile so as not to provide intelligence that will enable its capture.
The Palestinians are reporting large-scale searches in Hebron and neighboring villages in the region south of the junction where the kidnapping took place on Thursday.
Even though the army has surrounded the area with troops from the infantry and elite units, it is an extremely difficult area to search.
Once, what seems like a generation ago (actually only 12 years), about half the Golani Brigade was deployed in Kfar Tapuah, west of Hebron, in an effort to capture one stubborn wanted man.
A single sentence is engraved in my head from when I accompanied the troops. “Look at that village,” a soldier from the commando unit said. “Just try to imagine how many water cisterns and storage sheds and hiding places there are. If I wanted to hide here, none of you would find me.” Incidentally, the wanted man was finally located after a long day of searching, but that was thanks to precise intelligence provided to the Shin Bet.
Meanwhile, the effort to find the kidnappers in the Hebron region and the arrest operations throughout the West Bank have raised tensions in other areas of the territories as well.
A young Palestinian man was killed by army gunfire in the Jalazun refugee camp, near Ramallah, during a confrontation that developed as an attempt was made to arrest a wanted man. Reports of demonstrations, the throwing of firebombs and scattered shooting attacks are increasing.
The situation on the Gaza border is equally incendiary. Israeli officials believe Hamas’ leadership does not want an escalation, but its field operatives and, most certainly, members of splinter groups such as Islamic Jihad will not want to sit quietly if the West Bank should ignite.
The kidnapping could move from being a grave tactical incident to the strategic level.
The purpose of the Israeli actions – from the large-scale wave of arrests to the statements made by the prime minister and government ministers – is to drive a wedge between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and stop the reconciliation process that began some two months ago.
It could work. Hamas’ act, whether it turns out to have been a local initiative or is proven to have involvement from Gaza, caused a great deal of embarrassment to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was pushed into making a weak statement of sorrow after almost four days. We can guess that he is furious with Hamas.
As far as Abbas is concerned, this is a lose-lose situation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has condemned him for his indirect responsibility for the kidnapping (since the kidnappers left from PA territory). But if Abbas should openly help in finding the kidnappers, his public will accuse him of collaborating with Israel.