Jerusalem – The ongoing search for three Israeli teens, who may have been kidnapped in the occupied West Bank, has expanded far beyond its initial scope, quickly transforming into a full-scale military and diplomatic effort to crush Hamas.
The timing is fortuitous for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet, who spent the last few weeks trying frantically to discredit a consensus government announced on June 2 by Fatah and Hamas.
The United States and European Union both consider Hamas a terrorist organisation, as does Israel, yet they welcomed the announcement, meant to be the first step towards ending the seven-year schism between the two factions.
On Wednesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the alleged kidnappers were trying to “destroy the Palestinian Authority”, a sign of the growing pressure on the leadership in Ramallah.
There are no members of Hamas in the new cabinet. Diplomats and pundits here complained that Netanyahu was caught flat-footed, unsure of how to respond.
Since the teenagers disappeared on Thursday night, though, Israel has moved aggressively. The army has rounded up more than 240 Palestinians, including much of the higher-level Hamas leadership in the West Bank.
In his public statements, Netanyahu has taken a vindicated tone, urging the world to denounce Hamas and the reconciliation pact.
There is still no concrete evidence linking Hamas to the suspected abduction – but Israel’s political and military leadership is, nonetheless, talking about a sustained campaign to “break” the organisation, and a prime minister, who seemed on the defensive just days ago, has suddenly found a political opportunity.
“We have an interest, a very clear interest, in differentiating between Hamas and Fatah, to do whatever we can to undo what has been done,” said Meir Elran, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies. “It is within the policy of the government to try to crush Hamas as much as possible.”
The three teens, aged 16 to 19, disappeared on Thursday night while hitchhiking home from their religious seminary in Kfar Etzion, an illegal settlement in the West Bank between Bethlehem and Hebron.
The army initially focused its search in that area, sealing off Hebron and deploying troops to comb the hills and villages. Checkpoints and concrete barriers have been erected around the city.
But the focus of the offensive quickly widened. Lt Gen Benny Gantz, the army chief, told a gathering of senior officers on Sunday night that the military operation had two goals: “To find the missing boys, and to injure Hamas as much as possible.”
Since then, hundreds of troops have been deployed to the northern city of Nablus, and arrests were reported on Monday night as far away as Jenin, where the army raided a charity affiliated with Hamas.
The list of detainees includes not only alleged militants, but also dozens of politicians, even journalists. Many of them are likely to end up in “administrative detention”, held indefinitely without charge on scant evidence.
Army Radio described the operation as a “root canal”; unnamed officers have told reporters that it could continue even after the teenagers are found.
On Tuesday, the security cabinet voted to approve harsher conditions for Hamas-affiliated prisoners in Israeli jails. A number of other measures are also being discussed, including exiling Hamas members from the West Bank to Gaza and demolishing their homes.
In an English-language statement to foreign reporters on Sunday, Netanyahu angrily denounced both Hamas and the PA’s leadership.
“You remember that Israel warned the international community about the dangers of endorsing the Fatah-Hamas unity pact,” he said. “I believe that the dangers of that pact now should be abundantly clear to all.”
Netanyahu has asked his cabinet to keep quiet, but ministers seem free to ignore the directive while commenting on Hamas.
Naftali Bennett, the head of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party, told Army Radio on Tuesday morning that Israel would “make Hamas membership a ticket to hell”.
wants to take advantage of this opportunity and go back to his old approach.”]
Uzi Landau, the tourism minister, went as far as describing Washington as an accessory to the alleged kidnappings. “The willingness of the US administration to effectively recognise the Abbas-Hamas government causes damage to the security of Israel’s citizens and encourages terror,” he said.
“The message to the international community is that, ‘We’ve told you,’” said Yoram Meital, a professor of political science at Ben-Gurion University. “It basically puts sticks in the wheels of the talks that [US Secretary of State John] Kerry has tried to push.”
This shift in momentum was hard to imagine a week ago, when Netanyahu seemed to be reeling. The international community largely blamed him for the collapse of negotiations with the Palestinians, which ended in April when Israel refused to honour the fourth round of a prisoner release.
A series of angry statements failed to shift world opinion on the consensus government – and Netanyahu himself did not impose any of his promised sanctions on the PA, beyond revoking the VIP travel permits of senior officials.
At home, too, he had suffered a stinging defeat, with the election of longtime rival Reuven Rivlin as Israel’s next president.
There has been some muted criticism from inside Israel: The liberal newspaper Haaretz called Netanyahu’s actions “underhanded opportunism”; Rami Igra, a former head of the Mossad unit that searches for captive Israelis, told the Jerusalem Post that his accusations could be premature.
“There have been no facts presented to the public that they have been abducted by Hamas,” he said. “The fact that he is naming who abducted these kids is more political than based on fact.”
Political or not, though, the domestic reaction has been largely supportive. The alleged kidnappings have frozen all talk of negotiations with the Palestinians, and Abbas is under growing pressure to cancel the reconciliation deal with Hamas.
There has been no credible claim of responsibility for the act, and Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas, called Netanyahu’s accusations “stupid”.
“The longer-term strategy is basically to buy time, to keep the status quo, and not to take what he sees as a risk, a huge risk, of getting into historic concessions with the PA,” Meital said. “It’s nothing new … [Netanyahu] wants to take advantage of this opportunity and go back to his old approach.”