What Is the True Aim of Israel's Show of Force?

Netanyahu, seeking to justify a massive display of force, is loading more and more goals onto the search for the abducted teens. But at what cost?

Haaretz Editorial
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A Palestinian woman cries in her home after a raid on Sunday by Israeli troops searching for three abducted Israeli teens, in Salim village near the West Bank city of Nablus. Credit: AP
Haaretz Editorial

“Even if we locate and rescue the kidnapped boys, we won’t cease this operation until we feel we have exhausted it,” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon declared. “The operation must continue as long as it continues,” Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said in his own take on the purpose of the search for the three abducted teens. Gantz explained that the operation’s main goal is to find the teens and their abductors, while the “ancillary goal” is to cause more damage to Hamas.

The search for the kidnapped teenagers and their abductors is indeed the supreme goal, and it shouldn’t be abandoned. But 10 days after the kidnapping, it’s permissible to ask what Israel really wants to achieve through this operation.

Is this demonstration of force – which has included deploying thousands of soldiers in the Hebron area and beyond, house-to-house searches and hunting through cellars and caves – really meant to find the abducted teens, or is it meant to create a routine of domination and intimidation as a form of collective punishment?

If the goal is to cause more damage to Hamas, on the assumption – as yet unproven – that Hamas perpetrated the kidnapping, it’s legitimate to ask why the Shin Bet security service wasn’t taking action against Hamas operatives even before the abduction. The purpose of rounding up “the usual suspects” is similarly unclear. If the goal is to cause the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and unity government to break up, policy makers must explain how this goal will aid in finding the kidnapped teens and their abductors. And even if we assume this is a worthy goal in its own right, how will searching houses, clashing with innocent civilians and killing demonstrators help persuade the Palestinian Authority to break with Hamas?

It seems that as time passes and frustration grows over the absence of any clue that would lead to the kidnappers, the prime minister is loading more and more goals onto the search in order to justify the display of force. The risk is that these ancillary goals could undermine other Israeli interests or create a deep rift between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which is still assisting the Israeli search to the best of its ability and with which it’s important to maintain the existing security cooperation.

Israel must not and cannot ignore the kidnapping of three of its citizens. It must continue to employ all its intelligence capabilities, but without any showcase operations or displays of force – something it has known how to do in the past, and which has achieved results. And it must refrain from turning this serious terror attack into a political or diplomatic excuse.