Prolonged Israeli Operation Risks Violence With Palestinian Citizens

As its West Bank operation enters a second week, Israel ramps up its Hasbara efforts, while Gaza busies itself with producing mid-range rockets.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian man in the West Bank city of Hebron on Saturday, June 21, 2014.
Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian man in the West Bank city of Hebron on Saturday, June 21, 2014.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The second week of Operation Brother's Keeper opened Friday with massive deployment of Israeli army troops in villages west and north of Hebron, and in the open terrain between them. Soldiers have been combing wide areas for signs of three teens who were kidnapped from the Gush Etzion junction in the West Bank last Thursday night. The army says the deployment is not based on new intelligence. Without news, thousands of soldiers have been assigned to search every meter, in hopes that this concentrated effort will solve the mystery.

This isn't war, even though the media - tinted night-vision green and accompanied by a dramatic soundtrack - may have viewers fooled. Since the kidnapping, the Israel Defense Forces shifted from routine policing and security operations in the area to raids and arrests. So far, soldiers have not been met with an armed adversary. Hamas, whose men are on the run, is avoiding direct confrontation, and the Palestinian Authority's security services are cooperating with Israel in efforts to find the kidnapped teens.

Instead, those taking the ground against the IDF are Palestinian youths, who lob stones and firebombs at Israeli soldiers at the outskirts of villages and cities. Two Palestinians have been killed so far in these clashes, one of them this weekend, and another has been seriously wounded.

A short visit to the paratroopers brigade that has been deployed for a week in the Hebron area shows the operation, led by Central Command's Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, is being conducted responsibly and with restraint. Forces have been warned against unnecessary harm to the Palestinian population. But deployment of this magnitude, an anomaly in recent years, invariably leads to local clashes – and in one of them, early Friday morning in the village of Dura south of Hebron, a 15-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohammed Dudin, was killed when paratroopers used live fire against stone-throwers.

The raging debate about the degree of solidarity between settlers and the "State of Tel Aviv" has luckily not reached the paratroopers in Hebron. As was the case in previous kidnappings – Har Dov, Gilad Shalit, the kidnapping of the reserve soldiers that sparked the Second Lebanon War – active duty soldiers are mostly concerned with the fate of the teens, only a few years their junior. The paratroopers had no home-leave this weekend, and some soldiers were also understanding of the postponement of their release from service. The message isn't only directed internally, at Israeli society, but also at the Palestinians: This is how Israel searches for its kidnapped citizens. It devotes itself to the cause with a prolonged, sometimes aggressive, effort, even at the price of disturbing the day-to-day lives of the Hebron-area residents.

IDF officers in contact with their Palestinian counterparts reported unease on the Palestinian side stemming from the kidnapped teens' identity. Taking into consideration the public atmosphere in the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would have found it difficult to publicly condemn the kidnapping of a soldier. But a vicious attack on teenagers is a different matter. Abbas' determined statements did not fall on deaf ears in the Israeli security establishment, and were repeated by all the officers I talked with in recent days. However, the Netanyahu government was almost unanimous in its disdain for Abbas' statements, while at the same time, its top ministers made some bizarre public acts: Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon hurried to document and distribute a speech and photo-op with elite soldiers, who may eventually be sent to overtake the kidnappers, as if unable to restrain himself until the end of the operation. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, in an interview with Channel 2, deflected blame from the police for the mishandling of the call to the hotline, in which one of the kidnapped teens said they had been abducted.

On the hasbara front, the government is directing a two-pronged maneuver: Pressuring the Palestinian Authority to move away from Hamas, and looking for evidence to prove that top Hamas officials from outside the West Bank were also involved in the kidnapping. On the first prong, statements by Abbas and his men prove the kidnapping has slowed down the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, and may even bring it to a halt. On the second prong, evidence has so far been slim. Hamas' political leader in Damascus, Khaled Meshal, made a speech last month in Qatar in which he addressed Hassan Salame, a Hamas member imprisoned in Israel, which may be considered retroactively, with effort, as a directive for additional kidnappings. Additionally, information has been released concerning Salah Aruri, a Hamas member released by Israel from administrative detention, about four years, ago in return for his expulsion from the West Bank, who directs the group's terror activities by proxy. The instructions and funds transferred by Aruri, most recently from his Turkey residence, to many Hamas cells in the West Bank exhibit a pattern, but they do not yet link him to the kidnapping. A high-ranking army official said the cells make their own interpretations of Hamas' policy based on public statements and on hidden missives.

Compared to the West Bank, the Gaza Strip is for the time being a secondary front. The behavior of Hamas leaders in the Strip shows their reluctance to join the fray, both because of Israeli retaliation and because of the heavy pressure exerted from neighboring Egypt. But beneath the surface, this front is also abuzz with activity. On Thursday, five Hamas members were killed in a mysterious explosion in a tunnel, one of dozens dug by the group in the Strip. Almost every night rockets are fired toward Israel's south. If it emerges that the kidnapped teens were murdered by a Hebron cell, or if no progress is reached in the operation, Israel may try to exact a price from Hamas in Gaza. In the background, Gaza is engaged in a calculated and laborious production of mid-range rockets. The head of the Military Intelligence research division, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, estimated earlier this month in a speech in Herzliya that the Strip already houses hundreds of rockets aimed at Tel Aviv.

The operation in the West Bank is waiting for a breakthrough in intelligence that will lead the IDF to locating the kidnapped teens, or at least answer the question of what became of them. But two looming dates will force themselves into Israeli considerations: The start of the month of Ramadan on June 28, and the summer break on June 30. The vacation will let hundreds of thousands of school-age Palestinians out to the streets, increasing friction with IDF soldiers operating in West Bank villages and cities.

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