Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at Sunday’s cabinet meeting what the army has avoided stating explicitly: Israel believes that Hamas, or an Islamist cell linked to it, is responsible for the kidnapping of the three teenage boys from Gush Etzion.
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Overnight, about 80 Palestinians were arrested throughout the West Bank, most of them members of Hamas and a few active in Islamic Jihad. Among the detainees were most of Hamas’ political leaders in the West Bank. While this is an attempt to put pressure on Hamas, the arrests of many other activists at the field level, particularly in the Hebron area, are more important.
Interrogations by the Shin Bet security service will glean bits of information that could help locate the cell. The Shin Bet is putting a finger on the outer circle that apparently worked with the kidnappers; this jibes with the evidence already collected: the location of the kidnapping and the burned-out car that was apparently used in the crime. Undoubtedly there’s also intelligence from human sources and surveillance.
The Shin Bet can probably already reconstruct what happened at the hitchhiking station Thursday night. The critical element — the identities of the kidnappers and the place the teenagers are being held — is still missing. As I’ve written here before, based on the current information and the lessons of previous kidnappings in the West Bank, there’s not much room for optimism about the teenagers’ fate.
Meanwhile, the army has flooded the Hebron area with special units, prevented anyone from entering Israel from there and southern Bethlehem, begun thorough inspections at crossings on the Green Line and into Jordan, increased activity along the Gaza border fence and carried out an unusually high number of air strikes on Gaza. The conclusion: Israel is doing everything it can to prevent the kidnappers from smuggling the teenagers from the West Bank to a safe house further away.
In the meantime, as usual, the blame game is under way. The fact that the Shin Bet and the army thwarted dozens of kidnapping attempts over the past two years doesn’t absolve them from responsibility for Thursday’s incident.
Several questions need to be asked about the performance of the various authorities before the kidnapping and in the hours immediately after. This is true of the cabinet as well, which only last week gleefully promoted a right-wing bill prohibiting pardons for terrorists. The cabinet now gets to put the results of its decision to the test.
The Shin Bet will also need to look into why, before Thursday, it didn’t uncover the cell, which appears to have perpetrated a complex act of terrorism. Such questions will also be asked of the army, the main entity responsible on the ground.
But the police are the ones at the heart of the storm because of the call — most of whose specifics are still under a gag order — to a police emergency hotline as the kidnapping was taking place. As long as the details of the call remain unpublished, it’s hard to judge whether there were enough warning signs to require immediate action.
What’s clear is that four and a half precious hours, which can never be brought back, elapsed between the ignoring of that call and the Shaer family’s first report from Talmon about their missing son. That was more than enough time for the kidnappers to sever all contact.
Although Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch has called on the media “not to go into whether there was a failure” while the teenagers are being searched for, it’s doubtful his request will be heeded. The police’s embarrassment might start with the telephone receptionist, but it ends with the police chief.
Of course, it’s not Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino’s fault that the kidnapping took place on Thursday night, the day after he left for a conference of police chiefs abroad. But the fact that he’s landing back in Israel 72 hours later doesn’t seem right during such a serious security incident.