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The Public Demands Revenge, but Netanyahu Doesn't Want Long War With Hamas

Bad blood between Jews and Arabs on rise in territories, Israel proper; 'price tag' attacks expected.

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Israel Air Force strike in Gaza Strip, July 1, 2014.Credit: AFP

The mystery of the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers was solved Monday night with the discovery of their dead bodies in the heart of the area where the search took place, west of Hebron. However, the security crisis that the kidnapping set off is still in force.

The Netanyahu government must now navigate between the public's intense fury over the boys' murders, the pressure by the right wing within the government for a harsh response, and concern that a violent, escalating confrontation with Hamas will ensue, mainly in the Gaza Strip.

Click here for latest updates from aftermath of teens' kidnapping

The prime minister will have to undertake a series of responses to convince public opinion that he, as he claimed in a past election campaign, is still strong against Hamas – without being drawn into a long military entanglement.

The kidnapping of the yeshiva students elicited a wave of public sympathy with the families, but also calls for revenge, largely among the extreme right. Although there is no direct connection between the acts, in the public's consciousness the kidnappings in Gush Etzion are of a piece with other events currently in the news: the investigation into the murder of Afula's Shelly Dadon, whose family wants the state to declare it a terrorist act, even though police have not reached that conclusion; and another murder that police say they solved on Monday – that of Rinat Roas, a 20-year-old woman from Ashdod killed nine years ago, and in which the suspect is an Israeli Arab.

All these incidents heat up the atmosphere between Jews and Arabs, in the territories and also within Israel. It's no coincidence that police announced on Monday that they were putting units in all regions on high alert. Such an atmosphere can fuel incitement, turbulent demonstrations, violent clashes and attacks on Arabs within Israel proper. Based on past experience, it's possible to predict with a high degree of assuredness that there will be further arson attempts at mosques and assaults on Palestinian property in the territories, in the context of what are known as "price tag" attacks.

At the political level, Benjamin Netanyahu hears the calls for vengeance and senses the expectations for concrete responses from his government. In recent days he has convened a series of discussions to adopt punitive measures against Hamas. Under consideration were increasing pressure on the flow of money to Hamas, expulsion of the organization's leaders from the West Bank, and the destruction of terrorists' homes.

The security establishment announced its intention to destroy the home of the suspect in the murder of police officer Baruch Mizrahi, whose arrest was publicized last week after the lifting of a gag order. It is safe to assume that such steps will continue, in contravention of the policy in force since 2005, when the last house demolitions took place.

The government's declared purpose is to deter the Palestinians, but its practical goal is more to pacify Israelis. Harsh actions are liable to restrain the fury coming from the home front.

On the agenda, as always, will be the Gaza Strip. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, an adviser for all seasons, repeated his mantra this week about the need to weigh again reconquering Gaza as the only solution against Hamas. It's very doubtful whether any of his cabinet partners agrees with this conclusion. The second to last thing that Netanyahu is looking for is a drawn out military confrontation with Hamas. The last thing he really needs is controlling the entire Strip and administering the lives of 1.8 million Palestinians.

Nevertheless, the political temptation to take showy measures against Hamas in Gaza is great. Even though Israel hasn’t uncovered a smoking gun linking the Hamas operatives from Hebron who perpetrated the kidnapping to the organization’s leadership in Gaza, it assumes the operation was carried out in obedience to the leadership’s general directives. In recent days, tensions between Gaza and Israel have risen and there has been a sharp increase in the number of rockets fired from the Strip at the Negev. The air force has also conducted more air strikes. Sunday night, a Hamas operative was killed in one such strike, which Israel said was aimed at a cell about to launch rockets. But there’s a growing possibility that this was a case of mistaken identity, and the cell actually wasn’t making launch preparations. In any case, there is fertile ground for escalation here.

An Israeli assassination of a single senior Hamas official would be enough to start a larger fire. Such a step would earn Netanyahu plaudits from the right, but it has the potential to be dangerous. Military Intelligence estimates that Hamas has hundreds of rockets in Gaza that are capable of hitting the greater Tel Aviv region. Hamas claims it also has rockets with an even longer range, capable of reaching northern Israel.

Anyone who starts a major operation against Hamas in Gaza must be prepared for a relatively long confrontation that will include intensified attacks on Israel’s home front. Such an operation must have a clearer goal than satisfying the public’s desire for revenge.

In the diplomatic sphere, the finding of the bodies will increase pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to break with Hamas. This has already happened to some extent, since the kidnapping worsened relations between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah party. But it’s still hard to see Abbas complying with Netanyahu’s demand that he break up the technocratic unity government he formed in cooperation with Hamas.

The principal goal of Operation Brother's Keeper, finding the kidnapped teens, was achieved last night. The tragic result – the discovery of bodies rather than live kidnap victims – was expected by everyone familiar with the intelligence picture that emerged from the investigation over the past two weeks.

The bullet marks found in the car the kidnappers used, the contents of the tape of the call one teen made to a police hotline and an analysis of the modus operandi of previous kidnappings all led to the conclusion that there was almost no chance any of the kidnapped boys had somehow survived.

The terrible end of the affair must open the conduct of the government and the security establishment for renewed debate. The constant repetition of the working premise that the three are alive (based mostly on lack of evidence as to their death), along with the media frenzy over the families of the teens, may have fostered exaggerated expectations in the public.

Another main question still unanswered pertains to the tracking of the kidnappers. The Shin Bet security service, which failed to prevent their plan beforehand, still managed relatively quickly to identify the two kidnappers and arrest several members of the outer circle of the Hebron terror infrastructure, aided by Palestinian intelligence.

It's likely that, in the near future, indictments will be filed against several of their accomplices. The final deciphering was made thanks to the analysis of partial findings from the investigation, alongside the extensive IDF searches in the area where the bodies were estimated to be buried.

It's rare for bodies to be found before the murderers are arrested. Despite the failures so far, it's safe to assume that sooner or later the murderers will be found. Several kilometers away from where the bodies were found, in 1998 Israeli security forces killed the brothers Imad and Adel Awadallah, heads of Hamas' military arm in the West Bank, after a long manhunt. It's likely that Marwan Qawasameh and Amer Abu Aisheh, suspected of kidnapping and killing the teens, will meet with a similar fate.

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