West Bank Kidnapping Presents Both Netanyahu and Abbas With Dilemmas

The Israeli prime minister cannot appear soft in dealing with Thursday's kidnapping of three yeshiva students, while the timing is disastrous for the Palestinian president.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.Credit: Ronen Zvulun , AP , Mohamed Torokman, Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Some 48 hours after the three yeshiva students from Gush Etzion were kidnapped, two basic assumptions are strengthening based on previous experience of similar incidents: That the security forces are likely to solve the affair relatively quickly, and that this does not necessarily improve the chances that the kidnapping will end well. Despite the careful messages from security heads regarding the fate of the three hostages, there does not appear to be much room for optimism.

Israel has a strong security control over the West Bank, which is also dependent on cooperation with the Palestinian security apparatus. This is also apparent now – the Palestinians found the burned-out car that is possibly linked to the kidnapping and transferred it to the Israelis.

In their efforts to reach the hostages, the investigators are concentrating on two sites: the junction in Gush Etzion where the kidnapping took place, and the area where the car was deserted, near Dura in the southern Hebron Hills. To this must be added deep intelligence, electronic and personal coverage of everything that happens in the West Bank. Together, they could form a trail of evidence. During Shabbat, the first arrests in the Hebron area were reported.

All this could mean it might be possible to reach the cell’s outer circle. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Saturday that the assumption is that the three hostages are alive.

This is what is normally said in such situations – as long as there is no verified contrary information – and should be a working assumption in the search.

However, from previous kidnappings in the West Bank in the past decade, it can be seen that the kidnappers rarely leave hostages alive, in view of the extent of the Israeli search and the assumption that a live hostage – not all three – leaves behind him a heavier “intelligence signature” which could lead to the cell being located.

From what has been published so far about Thursday night’s events, it appears that the cell knew what it was doing. Overpowering the three hostages, even if they were unarmed youths, demands meticulous planning and the involvement of not a few people – someone to threaten them with a weapon, someone to tie them up, another person to drive the vehicle, and definitely an array of people to conceal and guard them.

This demands a high level of operational discipline, before and after the event, recognizing weak spots and exploiting them. In previous incidents, escape vehicles were sometimes left burned out in some far-off location, in an attempt to confuse their pursuers.

Never have three Israelis been kidnapped together in the West Bank. “It appears that the terrorists got under our radar,” Ya’alon admitted. This will necessitate a retrospective examination and to ask whether there could have been a quicker reaction to the kidnapping.

On Friday, leaflets were disseminated in Hebron taking responsibility for the kidnapping, first by a cell identified with Al-Qaida (even bearing the name of organization’s faction in Iraq and Syria), and later by a group called “Free Hebron.”

These announcements should be taken with a pinch of salt. The basic assumption should be that the action was carried out by Hamas or a Hamas-affiliated local Islamic cell from the Hebron area. Israel will have to verify what the organization’s leadership in Gaza knew.

In the past two years, the Shin Bet security service and Israel Defense Forces have thwarted dozens of kidnap attempts in the West Bank. A considerable number of these attempts were initiated by Hamas prisoners in Israeli prisons and operatives in the organization’s military wing in Gaza.

Operations in the West Bank are coordinated by Salah Aruri, who was deported by Israel following a long administrative detention and is based today in Turkey. Subordinate to him are several of those released under the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange and were expelled to Gaza – notably Abed al-Rahman Ranimat and Mazen Fukha.

The kidnap attempts were part of Hamas’ declared policy. Has the organization changed its approach following the reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority? Over the weekend, Hamas operatives issued a congratulatory announcement on the kidnapping that included no taking of responsibility, probably due to operational considerations – so as not to make the search easier for Israel.

Publicly taking responsibility would be problematic in terms of relations with the PA. The kidnapping is extremely embarrassing and worrying for PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas – especially in terms of its timing.

Just as it was looking like Abbas was managing to rebuff Israel’s international campaign against the government of technocrats that he set up with Hamas, this kidnapping plays along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s contention.

Behind the scenes, the Palestinian security apparatus are helping Israel in the search. But in public, it’s difficult for the PA to renounce the kidnapping. The struggle – including the violent struggle – for the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel is at the heart of the Palestinian consensus.

The kidnapping presents the Netanyahu government with a test. In the five years since he returned to power, the prime minister has not faced many similar challenges. In the Mavi Marmara affair in June 2010, he acted euphorically, took no interest in the details and was stymied by the army’s failed operation.

On the other hand, he conducted Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza in November 2012 well. Also, Netanyahu has been careful not to get Israel unnecessarily embroiled with the upheavals in the Arab world.

There is a large gap between his belligerent image, especially overseas, and the careful use he makes of military force. His normally tough rhetoric is not usually translated into extreme acts. Netanyahu is far more careful than Ehud Olmert, who lost his balance after two kidnappings and got embroiled in a war.

But kidnapping is a different matter for Netanyahu, who built his public standing three decades ago on the legacy of his brother Yoni, hero of the Entebbe operation, and the ideology of not conceding to terror at any price. In the Shalit affair, he seriously wavered from that path by compromising and agreeing to release 1,027 prisoners for one kidnapped soldier.

The public is also showing great sensitivity, bordering on panic when talking about three young hostages, who in the media immediately become the children of all of us.

Netanyahu will take a tough stance. In operational terms, he doesn’t face many dilemmas. Like any prime minister, he would prefer a rescue operation over extended negotiations for their release.

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