Israeli Offensive Turns Up Few, if Any, Gains

Even within the IDF there is support for the claim that expansion of the operation against Hamas harms the main goal of finding the kidnapped teens.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An IDF soldier carrying seized computer equipment.
An IDF soldier carrying seized computer equipment.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

After a year in his post, sometime back in the 1980s, one of the heads of the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank told his officers: “I understand what we are doing here: We close offices so we will have what to open in the future, and we open offices so we will have what to close.”

That, in summary, is what Israel is now doing at the beginning of the second week of Operation Brother’s Keeper in the territories. As of last night, the main goal of the operation was still unachieved - finding the three teens kidnapped in Gush Etzion and capturing the kidnappers.

The IDF and Shin Bet security service are still searching for the breakthrough - a sliver of relevant information or a lucky detention of someone at a checkpoint - that will bring the affair to an end. There were moments this week when the goal seemed near, but those hopes were dashed. If the kidnapped youths are no longer alive, as has happened in many of the previous kidnappings in the West Bank, completing the intelligence puzzle will be even more difficult.

The longer that goal remains unmet, the greater the need to provide an alternative achievement - mostly for the politicians, but also for the army. That need gave rise to the campaign against Hamas, along with the raids on the offices of charitable organizations, student organizations and radio stations. There is no doubt that most of the targets raided by the IDF in recent days are connected to Hamas and the vast majority of the 280 Palestinian detainees during the first week of the operation are Hamas members.

But it is possible to prove that only a small minority of them are actively involved in terror. Flooding the West Bank with IDF forces - on Wednesday night, battalions of a fourth infantry brigade, Givati, joined the operation - was intended to increase the feeling of security of the settlers and to broadcast that the IDF was taking action. But it had little connection with finding the kidnapped teens. The actual search efforts are being conducted mostly on an axis connecting the Shin Bet, Military Intelligence and special operations forces and are focusing mostly - as far as is known - on the area of Hebron.

In the meantime, while the victims are still missing, officialdom is busy with semantics: This many suspects were arrested, this many offices were closed and their computers confiscated.

The claim that the operation will necessarily weaken Hamas is not convincing. The clearest interest in fighting the civil and political activities of Hamas belongs to the Palestinian Authority. It did this quite well from 2008 to 2013, so Israel mostly did not intervene, focusing instead on capturing the members of the Hamas military wing - though not all, as the recent kidnapping seems to show. The pace of PA activity against Hamas slowed in the past few months due to the reconciliation agreement. It is possible that the Authority will renew its efforts, out of anger at Hamas’ involvement in the kidnapping affair.

The Israeli declaration of war against Hamas needs to be backed up by long-term planning and patience, two traits that Israel does not usually exemplify. The political leadership’s proclaimed determination and steadfastness should be taken with a grain of salt. Circumstances change and unforseen consequences can influence the continuation of the campaign. The Gaza Strip, for example, is still relatively quiet, but the deployment of Iron Dome batteries in the south indicates the IDF is not convinced that the situation will remain that way. Israeli disappointment at the lack of success in the West Bank could also bring about a heavier hand with Hamas in Gaza.

Alongside the attempts to locate the kidnapped teens, Brother’s Keeper is also an operation motivated by the desire for revenge. But Israel lacks targets to attack. There are only a few wanted men from the Hamas military wing in the West Bank that the Shin Bet knows about; otherwise they would have been arrested a long time ago by Israel or the Palestinian security services. Now Israeli politicians are putting pressure on the defense establishment to bring it new targets, and in response they are locating more and more offices of the Hamas civilian charity infrastructure.

The basic assumptions behind the move seem very iffy. The public’s memory is short and Israel has initiated broad operations against Hamas’ charity network in the West Bank in the past, such as after the abduction of Gilad Shalit in 2006 and the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip a year later. Some of the boxes of documents confiscated then have still not been opened.

It is difficult translating the information collected into legal evidence or public relations advantage. To do so, Shin Bet and police investigators are needed, as well as prosecutors and spokesmen. But the system is not really synchronized and at least the first two of these bodies are busier now - justifiably - with the hunt for the kidnappers. The Hamas’ detainees’ lawyers will most likely start petitioning the High Court of Justice in the next few days to demand their release and the return of the confiscated computers.

Israeli intelligence thinks the kidnapping has created a rift between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, Israeli defense sources told Haaretz yesterday. This will lead to a halt in the Palestinian reconciliation process, but it still seems that Israel needs to limit its expectations. Will the campaign go on until Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas publically renounces the agreement with Hamas?

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