Israel Offers Hamas One Last Out Before Hitting Hard

If the rocket fire from Gaza doesn't stop within a day or two, what’s next may be the assassination of Hamas leaders and missiles on Tel Aviv.

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A spokesman of the armed wing of Hamas gives a press conference in Gaza City.
A spokesman of the armed wing of Hamas gives a press conference in Gaza City. Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Since Monday, when the bodies of the three kidnapped teens were found, the main locus of Israeli-Palestinian friction has moved from the West Bank to East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. The manhunt for the suspected kidnappers continues. But the murder of East Jerusalem teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir, and the ongoing exchanges of rocket attacks from Gaza and retaliatory airstrikes have expanded the confrontation to new theaters.

Though a majority of ministers remain opposed to expanding Israel’s military operations, the balance in the diplomatic-security cabinet is fragile. Continued violent rioting in Jerusalem or casualties from rocket fire could yet lead to escalation. As always, one option is assassinating senior Hamas officials. But Hamas would almost certainly respond with massive rocket fire, including on Tel Aviv.

In the three weeks since the kidnapping, there has been a steady drizzle of rocket and mortar fire from Gaza. Israel has responded cautiously, usually with airstrikes on empty buildings. The intelligence agencies still think Hamas wants to avoid escalation. Yet the organization has begun playing a double game: It has been behind some of the mortar fire and has let other groups launch rockets.

The defense establishment opposes a large-scale operation in Gaza, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still maneuvering between this position and political pressure for action. Thus, despite the risks he might view resuming assassinations as a good solution.

On Thursday, a senior military official sent an unusual message to Hamas. “Quiet will be answered with quiet,” he told journalists hours after a rocket hit a house in Sderot. “Israel has no interest in escalation. If Hamas reins in the shooting now, we won’t act, either.”

It seems Jerusalem was thereby offering Hamas a final exit ramp. The statement included no deadline, but most likely Israel will give Hamas only a day or two to restore calm. After that, if the rocket fire continues, Netanyahu will enjoy more legitimacy at home (and also overseas) for aggressive action.

Meanwhile, Israeli rage over the teens’ murder is finding other outlets. Some are official: For instance, the policy of razing terrorists’ houses has been resumed. In other cases, the authorities seem to be turning a blind eye, as in Monday’s raids on the homes of the suspected kidnappers, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisheh: Ostensibly, soldiers merely forced entry by dynamiting the doors. But in practice, the damage was extensive. Finally there are the civilian manifestations: mobs assaulting Palestinian workers in Jerusalem, Facebook campaigns for vengeance and, perhaps, Abu Khdeir’s murder.

So far, there is no evidence that Hamas’ leadership either in Gaza or abroad was involved in the kidnapping. But either way, the finding of the teens’ bodies deprived Hamas of the last chance to wrest a significant achievement from the operation by negotiating over the return of the bodies. The abduction may have scored Hamas some points in Palestinian public opinion, but there were also many Palestinians who opposed killing unarmed boys. Moreover, the kidnapping undermined Hamas’ relations with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and effectively froze the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation.

Abu Khdeir’s murder altered the picture slightly, since Palestinians now have their own innocent victim – allegedly killed by a nationalistically-motivated Jew, though police haven’t yet confirmed this, saying the murder could also have stemmed from an internal Palestinian feud. Either way, the fact that it occurred at the start of Ramadan obviously didn’t help. Today’s Ramadan prayers on the Temple Mount could spark more rioting, and police are consequently beefing up their forces in East Jerusalem.

The Palestinian riots in Jerusalem on Wednesday, after Abu Khdeir’s body was found, were more violent than other riots in previous years. Pipe bombs were thrown at policemen in broad daylight and masked men torched some of the light rail stations in the city’s east. Nevertheless, it’s premature to talk about a third intifada. Israel also has better control over Jerusalem than it did during the second intifada, because the separation fence prevents Palestinians from the West Bank from coming to join the violence.

Intelligence failure

Meanwhile, the investigation of the Israeli teens’ kidnapping shows that it was fairly well-planned. Someone had to obtain the stolen car, the weapons, the money and the intelligence. Avi Issacharoff reported on the Walla news site this week that the boys’ bodies were found in a fenced plot purchased by the Qawasmeh family a few months ago. In other words, the kidnappers prepared the site, or at least knew of it.

Qawasmeh and Abu Aisheh were well-known Hamas operatives who have been arrested by both Israel and the PA in the past, yet they managed to completely conceal their plot from the Shin Bet security service. That is a failure that even the agency’s success in foiling 44 previous abduction attempts can’t erase.

This was compounded by the failures of the police and the Israel Defense Forces. That five precious hours were wasted because a police hotline mishandled a call from one of the teens, Gilad Shaar, is well known. But tapes of several calls between Shaar’s father, Ofir, and other hotlines, which were published this week by Channel 10 television, expose additional snafus.

The elder Shaar first called the security hotline of the Binyamin Regional Council, the area of the West Bank where he lives, at 3:10 A.M. on Friday, June 13. Four minutes later, the hotline operator called an IDF hotline. Two hours after that, Shaar was finally connected directly to the IDF. But army sources say that only at 6 A.M. was the regional brigade commander informed. Fifteen minutes later, he was en route to the yeshiva where two of the boys studied, where he checked out the situation and became convinced the case was serious. Thus a kidnapping alert finally went out to all army units only at 7:40 A.M.

Granted, the IDF deals with many false alarms. Yet this timetable begs the question: Why did it take three critical hours to inform the brigade commander? It was already too late to save the boys, but had the army swung into action earlier, the kidnappers would have had less time to make their getaway.

This series of failures by the security services – and there are likely others that the media haven’t uncovered – obligates the prime and defense ministers to launch a serious investigation. Only thus can the problems be solved before another kidnapping occurs.

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