The Not-so Hidden Agendas Behind the Kidnapping Crisis

While most Israelis worry about the kidnapped teens, the army is chasing Hamas out of the West Bank, the government is trying to isolate the PA and the settlers are attempting to justify the occupation.

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Israeli soldiers at temporary roadblock in Hebron during operation to locate three abducted teens, June 17, 2014.
Israeli soldiers at temporary roadblock in Hebron during operation to locate three abducted teens, June 17, 2014.Credit: Reuters

There is so much that is depressingly familiar about this abduction crisis, by now in day six — long days and nights without fresh information. There are the rumors, the prayer vigils, the night raids, the politicians, pundits and ex-generals filling the television studios hour after hour, saying nothing new. As in every period of national crisis, there are the conflicting twin frantic instincts of the need to preserve national unity and the urge to point a finger at someone, anyone to blame. And as usual there is the temptation to say that it has never been so intense, so gripping, so fateful.

The basic facts are not that unique. The modus operandi has been in use for decades. This is not the first time that the fate or whereabouts of abducted Israelis remained unknown for long agonizing days, not even the first time that three families had to go through this simultaneously (though in previous cases, it was the families of slightly older soldiers, rather than teenage civilians). True, the desperation felt by so many Israelis is amplified as never before by the chorusing networks of social media, but the same can be said of just about any major event taking place today. Facebook and Twitter have changed everything. Yet, there are a number of factors that have played into this crisis that make the kidnapping of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah different than previous captures of Israeli soldiers and civilians.

While both the efforts to locate and rescue the three yeshiva students and the anguish felt by the great majority of Israelis are very real, there is a growing recognition that the ongoing saga is about much more than their fate. Indeed, for the security establishment, for the government and for the pro-settler camp, it is much more.

The commanders of the Israel Defense Forces, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and GOC Central Command Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon have made no attempt to hide the fact that as far they are concerned this is the time to “hit Hamas hard.” The operation is called Brother's Keeper, but much of the military activity out in the field is not directly connected to the operational and intelligence efforts to locate the abductees. Over 240 Hamas members have been arrested and sectors have been searched that have no relation to the kidnapping. But there is another motive at work, and the army is hardly trying to hide it. The Islamic movement has slowly rebuilt some of its infrastructure in the West Bank in recent years — aided in part by the return of released prisoners from the Gilad Shalit deal — now is the moment to “shake the treetops.”

So far, the operation has not lead to any major escalation, with the exception of a number of violent clashes in which two Palestinians were killed. Even Hamas seems to be holding its fire and largely preventing other more radical organizations from launching salvoes of rockets from the Gaza Strip. But the operation is ongoing and could last at least another week or two — regardless of the outcome of the kidnapping. Frustration is building and something will go tragically wrong. It is in the nature of all military operations. The IDF has positioned Iron Dome missile defense system batteries around Gaza — this could still get a lot worse and lead to a new round of intense violence in the West Bank, around Gaza or perhaps in both territories.

The government’s agenda is also clear, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some of his colleagues are trying to keep it connected to the kidnapping. For two months now, their biggest problem has been how to isolate the new Palestinian unity government and find a way to get the United States and other Western governments to reject the Fatah-Hamas pact. Netanyahu contradicted himself on Sunday by mentioning the dozens of attempts by Hamas to kidnap Israelis in recent years and then linking this latest attempt with the unity deal. The tongue-tied reactions from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and evasive language coming from Hamas in Gaza underlines the fact that while the kidnapping was very popular among many ordinary Palestinians, for the leaderships of the two main movements, it could not have come at a more awkward time.

The Shin Bet security service still seems convinced that the abduction was carried out by Hamas members, though it remains far from certain whether it was sanctioned, much less directed by the leadership in Gaza. If serious proof of Hamas involvement emerges soon, the unity pact may be dealt a fatal blow — a diplomatic victory for Netanyahu. But even if that does happen, the longer-term result may be that with the peace talks on indefinite hold and Palestinian unity shattered — the PA will finally disintegrate, leaving Israel to deal with the ensuing chaos. In the vacuum left behind by the PA, and yes also by Hamas, which is clumsily clamoring for legitimacy, something else will come, in all likelihood much worse. That is hardly Netanyahu’s desired result, though some of his more far-right coalition partners may be happy.

There is also a third, much more elusive and perhaps less intentional agenda that underlines the events of the last six days. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that an entire nation is now feeling for the Shaar, Fraenkel and Yifrah families and hoping for their sons swift and safe return. But at the same time, there has been an attempt to obscure the circumstances and climate in which this kidnapping occurred and to replace it with a feeling among Israeli parents that there but for the grace of God go they. But that is not the situation. Not every parent in Israel sends his children to be educated in a boarding school in the West Bank and is resigned to the fact that the only efficient mode of transportation there is hitchhiking. In fact, this is a minority of Israelis — a small and ideological community — and most Israelis disagree with them and would not put their children in that situation.

When some raised the hitchhiking issue — the spokespeople of the settlers camp have tried to shut down debate by saying, Next thing, you’ll be saying that it wasn’t the Arabs who kidnapped them at all, it was 'trempim' ('hitchhiking').” But that is absurd, and there is nothing callous or illogical about questioning the environment in which this happened. It does not justify what the kidnappers did or let them off the hook. Terror remains inexcusable. But we can ask ourselves whether exposing our children to terrorists is justifiable or if it is just another price Israel is being forced to pay by persisting with occupation and settlement. Not to ask these questions would be remiss of us. Those who accuse the questioners of callousness should ask themselves whether they are not doing the same by cynically trying to use this event, which has naturally brought Israelis together, to continue to blur the line between the settlements and Israel proper — risking all of us. Natural sympathy for the families must not obscure our view of the national interest.

Ultimately — when the mystery of the three teenagers' fates is solved or, as horrible as the prospect is, when no news emerges and other issues gradually push their plight to the sidelines of news bulletins — the question marks over the occupation will remain. The settler camp continues to lose the support of the Israeli mainstream as the latest poll indicated again only this week. A slow-burning anger over the price of occupation is growing, and that does not contradict the fact that nearly all Israelis feel for the three families. Pointing out the contributing factors to the kidnapping is not tantamount to letting the terrorists off the hook.

Awareness of the growing presence of the three agendas that make this particular kidnapping different should not in any way diminish the tragedy being experienced right now by three families. But neither should that tragedy obscure the fact that these agendas are being actively pursued and will have significant implications well beyond the personal fates of three teenagers.

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