Nearly two weeks after the kidnapping of three teenagers in the West Bank, the army is starting to lower expectations for the operation to bring the youths home safely. “As time passes, concern for their lives grows,” Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz told reporters Tuesday near Hebron, the West Bank city around where the search is focusing.
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Preparing the public for the possibility that the search will end with the discovery of bodies or without any resolution for months isn’t necessarily the army’s role. But with government spokesmen constantly repeating the line that “the working hypothesis is that the three are still alive,” Gantz has changed the picture.
The passage of time, based on experience and evidence from the current investigation, does not bode well. The absence of any sign of life from the abducted teens may mean that the kidnappers have fled the area; at least that’s the assessment among security officials.
Meanwhile, the army announced that the operation would continue but would focus on the main objective: finding the teenagers and the Hamas cell that did the kidnapping. This was a formal endorsement of the trend noticed earlier this week: a reduction of the intensity of last week’s effort, which was a more general strike against Hamas.
The arrest of nearly 300 Hamas activists, the arrest some of the terrorists released in the 2011 deal to free abducted soldier Gilad Shalit, the raids on charity organizations linked to Hamas – all these actions have run their course. The army has also removed some of the roadblocks it set up in the Hebron area. On Monday night four Palestinians were arrested, fewer than the average daily number last week.
It appears the IDF has wisely ditched the approach of last week, when the military objectives seemed to be crafted out of nowhere, based on the government’s desire to respond appropriately to the abduction.
When the arrests started creating friction with local Palestinians in the West Bank — after all, most arrests outside the Hebron area did not serve the investigation — the army decided to scale down the operation. This started after infantry brigades were sent in to scour open areas northwest of Hebron.
The new approach has been implemented without a clash between the government and the General Staff. Still, the dilemma facing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his team is far more complex than the one facing the army. In the absence of a breakthrough, the public might ramp up the pressure to produce results from the current operation, which was initiated from a state of weakness: Hamas’ success in carrying out the abduction.
In the meantime, international criticism continues — though restrained — of the IDF’s activities, including the killing of four Palestinian youths who clashed with the army. Despite Israel’s efforts, the United States and the European Union have done little more than express sympathy with the families of the kidnapped teenagers.
In Israel the kidnapping is the main focus, but abroad it is viewed as simply more bad news from a region that has gone completely mad. From a distance, the kidnapping blends in with news of the suicide attacks and massacres in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. The appearance of the teens’ mothers at the UN Human Rights Council met with even more indifference, taking into consideration the long-established anti-Israel stance there.