Five days after three yeshiva students were kidnapped in the West Bank and after three days of Israeli arrests across the Palestinian territories, there appears to be no end in sight to the latest crisis to hit this region.
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At about 10 P.M. on Thursday June 12, three yeshiva students, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel, both 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19, were hitchhiking home together from Etzion junction in the West Bank. They caught a lift.
At 10:25 P.M. one of them called police and whispered, "We've been kidnapped." The police thought it was a prank call, but it wasn't. The boys have not been heard from since, and national life in Israel now focuses strictly on finding them, finding the kidnappers, and punishing those behind the crime, whom the government is convinced is Hamas.
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Israeli authorities say their "working assumption" is that the boys are alive. However, Channel 10 military commentator Alon Ben-David reported Monday that "there is a very heavy fear for their lives."
A few unknown Palestinian and Islamist groups have taken responsibility for the kidnapping, but none are considered credible. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has Israeli authorities know "for a fact" that Hamas was behind it; the massive manhunt by Israeli and Palestinian Authority forces is centered on the Hebron area, a Hamas stronghold.
Hamas has denied the accusation, which the organization's spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri described as "stupid" and a futile attempt to "break Hamas."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has backed Netanyahu's assertion, saying Washington continues to "seek details on the parties responsible for this despicable terrorist act, although many indications point to Hamas' involvement."
Crackdown in the West Bank
Security forces have swamped the southern part of the West Bank, blocking traffic, setting up checkpoints, conducting raids and getting into violent clashes with Palestinian protesters. Some 150 Palestinians have been arrested, most of them "Hamas activists," according to Netanyahu. One Palestinian has been killed, another critically injured. Palestinians complain that the army-Shin Bet crackdown on the West Bank amounts to "collective punishment." Meanwhile, some rockets have been fired from Gaza and Israel has struck back hard.
"We are in the middle of a complex operation. We need to be prepared for the fact that it may take more time. It is a serious incident and will have grave consequences," Netanyahu said Monday in a televised statement.
He was followed by Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, who said, "This abduction will not pass without Hamas paying a big price."
The media have been filled with emotional stories about the boys and their families, and large prayer gatherings have been held continually. The mood in the country is tense, pained and angry, with calls for an iron fist against Hamas commonly heard. A Facebook page titled "Until the boys return – shoot a terrorist every hour" seems to have touched a nerve, getting nearly 18,000 "likes."
Netanyahu has placed responsibility for finding the kidnappers on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Hours after the kidnapping, PA forces found a burning Hyundai i35 near Hebron that investigators suspect was the car the boys had gotten into.
The scandal emerging from the affair is the reaction of the police, who didn't suspect anything until the father of one of the boys showed up at the station about four hours after they had been snatched.
The political consequences of the incident are being shaped, so far, by Netanyahu, who cites the kidnapping as proof of the Fatah-Hamas unity government's illegitimacy, and as a casus belli for Israel against Hamas.