Search for Kidnapped Teens Shifts to Intelligence Efforts

The outlook for success is not good; experience shows that intelligence-led efforts can take years to yield results.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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IDF soldiers in the West Bank village of Awarta, June 26, 2014.
IDF soldiers in the West Bank village of Awarta, June 26, 2014.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Toward the end of the week, Operation Brother’s Keeper shifted to a saner model. No one could call the incident that precipitated the military operation “sane” — there is nothing normal or acceptable about abducting three teenage boys who were hitchhiking at night — but the way the state, the military and even the media are dealing with the kidnapping has become more logical.

News coverage is no longer 24/7, the army has halted its widespread detention operations, whose connection to the boys’ fate was tenuous at best, and returned to focusing on locating the teens, and even the ritual of daily media briefings by political and military leaders has stopped.

The scaling back of the military operation reflects a shift of emphasis to intelligence efforts. These could result in a breakthrough tomorrow morning, but might take much longer — months, even years, to judge by past experience.

Some parallels can be drawn between the most recent kidnapping and the abduction of Israeli soldiers by a Hamas cell in southern Israel in the late 1980s. It took nearly three months before the body of soldier Avi Sasportas was found, and seven years before Hamas figures in an Israeli prison delivered the information that led to the discovery of soldier Ilan Saadon’s body.

One of the kidnappers, who fled overseas, was Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a Hamas military commander who was assassinated in Dubai more than 20 years later.

The cell’s leader, Mohammed Sharatha, was imprisoned by Israel and freed 22 years later in the Shalit deal. Then, as now, the cells behind the abductions were highly compartmentalized, highly disciplined, and only a few people knew all the details of the operation.

As a result, the outlook for Operation Brother’s Keeper is not good, even though a week ago, senior military figures said, with a high degree of certainty, that its interrogations “touched the heart of the kidnapping cell.” A high-ranking officer, asked to estimate when the affair will end, said, “A week ago, I was optimistic, wrongly as it turned out. Now, I’m more careful.”

This week, the mothers of the three kidnapped teens went to Geneva to gain an important international stage, in the form of the UN Human Rights Council, where they pleaded for their sons’ release. The fact that they did so only a relatively short time after the abduction suggests that the families are not necessarily hewing to the official Israeli position or obeying all the directives of the expert negotiators.

The signs of a revival of the national festival that coalesced around the family of captured soldier Gilad Shalit are already in evidence, with media consultants tendering free advice.

In the first stage of an abduction, the state has two goals: to obtain a sign of life from the victims and to begin negotiations toward a deal, while at the same time planning a rescue operation. It is unlikely that the families’ appeal to the United Nations will lead the abductors to release information about the welfare of their victims.

So far as is known, there has not been any communication between the cell and Israel. The Shalit deal led his kidnappers to two conclusions: one, that Israel can be pressured, and two, that patience pays off, driving up the price Israel is willing to pay. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to reshuffle this deck by declaring an absolute refusal to negotiate and favoring a military solution.

Two weeks after the kidnapping, it is difficult to see anyone who is profiting from the affair. Israel quickly determined that a local Hamas cell in the West Bank was behind it, even though officials have not, despite Netanyahu’s promise earlier this week, bothered to produce evidence of this. Israel has leveraged this finding into a small-scale war against Hamas: mass arrests, the re-incarceration of dozens of former prisoners who were released in the Shalit deal and raids on the offices of charities — as well as an international campaign against the Fatah-Hamas Palestinian unity government.

The atypical and unequivocal condemnation of the kidnapping by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas scored him points with the West, but not with the Palestinian public. The Palestinian Authority is in dire straits in the West Bank, accused of collaborating with Israel because of its security coordination with Jerusalem.

This week, three Palestinian police officers were abducted in Ramallah. They were freed in exchange for the release of participants in a demonstration against Israel’s arrest campaign, outside police headquarters in the city, who were detained by the PA police. Hamas scored points with the Palestinian public, for hurting and humiliating Israel by means of the kidnapping. But the kidnapping also halted the organization’s gradual journey toward international legitimacy, precipitated by the establishment of the unity government.

In the meantime, the Gaza Strip also began to simmer. The number of rockets launched at Israel has risen since the kidnapping in the West Bank, as have Israeli air strikes on Gaza. Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas figure in Gaza, issued a surprising threat this week, claiming that his organization currently has rockets and missiles that can reach every part of Israel.

At the Herzliya Conference earlier this month, Brig. Gen Itay Brun, Chief of the IDF Military Intelligence Research Division, said that militants in Gaza have hundreds of rockets capable of striking greater Tel Aviv. Do they also have missiles that can reach northern Israel? When the Israel Navy intercepted the Iranian weapons ship the Klos C in March, its cargo included rockets whose range exceeds 60 miles.

Perhaps Zahar was hinting that Hamas has found alternative smuggling channels. The Shin Bet security service estimated that there are dozens of tunnels, dug from the Gaza Strip into Israel for the purpose of facilitating attacks on Israel and waiting to be used.

The second week of Operation Brother’s Keeper brought an end, after nearly two months, to the hunger strike by Palestinian administrative detainees in Israeli prisons. It was defeated by Israel’s increasingly uncompromising stance, combined with overwhelming lack of interest by the Arab media, which is busy with events in Iraq and disunity among the leaders of the detainees.

Israel has signaled a harshening of its policies in another area: The state announced it will demolish the West Bank home of Hamas operative Ziad Awad, who after being released from prison in the Shalit deal, murdered Israel Police Chief Superintendent Baruch Mizrahi in March of this year. Home demolitions were suspended in 2005 after a military committee determined that they were disproportionately punitive and ineffective as a deterrent.

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