Analysis

Don't Expect a Happy Ending From Israel's West Bank Operation

Instead of finding the abducted teens, the Israeli army is getting sidetracked into hunting down Palestinian flags and could soon find itself in an unwanted war.

Reuters

The moment the TV camera lingered on all the green Hamas flags confiscated by Israel Defense Forces troops at Bir Zeit University over the weekend, it became clear that the planners of Operation Brother’s Keeper had pretty much run out of ideas. From a focused hunt for the kidnappers of the three Israeli teenagers, the military operation has broadened its objectives, some of them pointless, including the battle against national symbols.

Veterans of the first intifada surely remember the dubious battle over the flags: How IDF soldiers forced residents of Gaza and the West Bank to climb electric poles to take down “PLO flags” (i.e. – flags of Palestine); how some ended up being electrocuted, how the state resorted to various excuses to avoid paying compensation to their families and how, finally, someone with a little common sense, put an end to it, just before the Oslo Accords. Now Palestinian flags are considered legitimate, but Hamas flags have once again become a big deal.

Israel has to find out what happened to the missing teens and capture their abductors. It is fully justified in pursuing its renewed campaign against members of the Hamas military wing throughout the West Bank. And one can also, if pressed, agree that the main objective of Hamas’ civilian charity arm, the da’wa, is to serve the organization’s terror cells.

But Hamas, which commits murderous acts of terror against Israel, is also a broad and deeply entrenched popular movement. Since it was founded in December 1987, shortly after the eruption of the first intifada, all Israel’s efforts to suppress it have failed. Anyone who counts the confiscated flags and computers among the operation’s achievements hasn’t noticed that the officers describing these dazzling successes look like they’re being forced to do so. The rift between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority was created the moment the organization launched the kidnapping in the West Bank behind the back of PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Even if the Palestinian government of technocrats survives, it’s hard to see how the PA and Hamas could agree to hold elections in the near future. More mindless Israeli blows to Hamas’ civilian “infrastructure” will not reduce admiration for the organization in the West Bank any further.

The IDF General Staff has two missions now, of nearly equal importance: One is to translate the meager intelligence information collected so far by the Shin Bet security service into action in the field that will lead to finding the kidnapped teens. The second is to rein in the ludicrous ideas coming from the fringes of the government and the coalition, which could needlessly entangle Israel in a war with Hamas in Gaza. The more the frustration grows over the lack of progress in the search, the more this danger increases – even though Israel ostensibly has no interest in a direct confrontation with Hamas in Gaza and even though Egyptian pressure on the organization is so far deterring it from initiating anything from Gaza.

A certain degree of restraint by the military leadership has been evident in the past few days. At first, the Palestinians showed little resistance to the West Bank being flooded with IDF forces, either because the scope of the operation took them by surprise, or because they understood that the abduction of unarmed teenagers crossed a red line and Israel had to mount a very serious response. But as the days go by, resistance to the arrest operations is growing and the throwing of rocks and firebombs is leading to soldiers responding with live fire. Early yesterday morning, two more young Palestinians were killed, bringing the number of Palestinians killed in the operation to four. The diversion of most of the units to searching in the open areas west of Hebron was apparently meant to somewhat reduce the clashes in the villages and towns.

At the same time, the West Bank population is getting increasingly angry at the PA, which is perceived as collaborating with Israel. These feelings are intensifying given Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu’s rather cool response to Abbas’ sharp condemnations of the kidnapping. After the IDF withdrew from Ramallah, demonstrators threw rocks at a Palestinian police station. Senior IDF officers admit that the operation’s achievements have so far been limited. There is no real evidence against most of those who have been arrested and the defense establishment is soon going to have to choose between releasing them or launching a mass wave of administrative detentions, a method that is already generating international criticism because of the hunger strikes being conducted by detainees already in custody.

Two key details from the Shin Bet and police investigations of the kidnapping have been made public: the discovery of the burnt car that apparently was used by the kidnappers in the attack, and the phone call from one of the boys to the police hot line, which the police neglected to pursue in a timely manner. Images of the car show that it was a small private car that could seat five – the driver and one passenger up front, and three passengers in the back seat. We also know that, according to the timetable that has been made public, the boy called the police not long after he and his two friends got into the car. In other words: The kidnappers found themselves with a relatively large number of victims, perhaps more than originally planned; and the boys realized that they’d been kidnapped – and perhaps (although we can’t tell from the official reports) the kidnappers were aware that the boys knew.

What incentive would the terrorists have, in such circumstances, to get rid of their hostages? What precedent is there for keeping alive three hostages in the West Bank, which is under the intelligence control of the Shin Bet and the PA security apparatuses? Why, since the rescue of Eliahu Goral in 2003, hasn’t a single Israeli kidnapped by a terror cell in the West Bank been kept alive?

The Israeli public is not stupid or naïve. Every journalist covering the case has been asked in recent days, again and again, by his friends and acquaintances, whether there is any further information that isn’t being publicized. The politicians, who have been holding somewhat odd press conferences almost daily, at which reporters are not permitted to ask questions, would do better to address citizens like adults. The odds that this affair will end well are steadily diminishing, but still, the security forces must make every effort to solve the mystery, and even though there may be only the slightest chance that any of the hostages has managed to survive.

In Israel there is a special sensitivity to kidnappings, as we saw in the Gilad Shalit case, and as we are seeing now. But the response should be carefully considered: This is a serious terror attack that requires a harsh response, and those responsible must be found. There is no pretext for war here, nor for creating an inflammatory atmosphere that could endanger Israel’s strategic interests in the region.