In the week since Israel’s search to find three teenagers began, operation “Bring Back Our Brothers” has expanded to include a crackdown on Hamas and other suspected militants.
Sixteen-year-olds Gilad Sha’er and Naftali Fraenkel, a dual US-Israeli citizen, along with 19-year-old Eyal Yifrah, disappeared June 12, while hitchhiking home from their seminary schools in the Israel-occupied West Bank. Israeli officials believe the three were kidnapped and accuse the militant Islamist group Hamas of abducting the teens. Hamas has praised the kidnapping, but neither confirmed nor denied involvement.
More than 300 Palestinians have been arrested so far. The Israeli military says at least two-thirds of them are associated with Hamas. Israeli Defense Forces spokesman Peter Lerner said this week that the operation to rescue the teens also aims to “substantially hit” Hamas.
“The mission against Hamas is targeting all levels of the organization,” he said. “From the tactical levels of its operatives, militants, through its organizational components and up to the leadership as well. So it is full scope and it is intended to take a toll off Hamas because they are standing behind this attack.”
Israel Sees Political Opportunity
Before the kidnapping, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear in repeated statements that he hopes for a swift demise of the recent political agreement between Hamas and the other major Palestinian faction, Fatah.
Israel and Fatah effectively deal with one another on a regular basis through the Palestinian Authority government, which Fatah dominates. But Israel regards Hamas as a terror organization and they have no direct contact with each other.
This week the prime minister has stepped up his calls rejecting the Fatah-Hamas unity deal. Netanyahu issued a statement last Sunday noting that Israel had previously “warned the international community” against accepting the Fatah-Hamas reunification pact, claiming it would increase acts of terrorism in the West Bank.
Referring to the teens’ disappearance, he added: “I believe that the dangers of that pact now should be abundantly clear to all.”
Netanyahu says now he “expects” the pact to end.
Debate On Ending Prisoner Swaps
A different political goal, promoted in recent months by Israel’s far-right parties, has been to end the government practice of freeing Palestinian prisoners as a diplomatic tool or in exchange for Israeli hostages.
In 2011, Israel traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who had been hidden by Hamas in the Gaza Strip for five years.
Israel’s military says since then scores of similar kidnappings have been planned, with one clear goal: “to trade IDF soldiers — captured dead or alive — for the release of Palestinian prisoners.”
A former commissioner of the Israeli prison service told Ha’aretz newspaper that Israelis don’t fully understand how deeply prisoners weigh on Palestinian society.
“There are so many prisoners that the situation affects every Palestinian family, directly and indirectly,” retired Lt. Gen. Orit Adato was quoted as saying. “And the prisoners are considered the ones who are paying the price for the Palestinian struggle, so the motivation to free them is high.”
Political analyst Eytan Gilboa, director of Bar-Ilan University’s School of Communication, says the broad military crackdown against Hamas going on now aims to deter future kidnappings.
“The idea is for Hamas and other organizations to pay such a heavy price that they would have no motivation whatsoever to do it again,” he said.
A Bill To Limit Prisoner Exchanges
But a key partner in Netanyahu’s coalition wants to change Israeli law to limit the possibility of prisoner swaps. Well before the three teens disappeared last week, Naftali Bennett, the economy minister and head of Israel’s Jewish Home party, promoted a bill allowing prison sentences without the possibility of pardon or parole.
When it passed a legislative committee in May, Bennett said it would end “years of blackmail.”
This week, he re-emphasized that such a law would show Hamas there is no gain from kidnapping Israelis.
“The state of Israel needs to stop releasing prisoners in instances like this, which we have done for 30 years,” Bennett told Israeli Radio. “If we exchange prisoners, this cycle will never end.”
Israel also has freed prisoners as part of peace negotiations with the Palestinians. During the most recent round, started last summer through the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli released 78 Palestinian prisoners over a period of months.
But Netanyahu chose not to release the final batch, effectively ending already floundering talks.
Right-wing Israeli politicians, including Bennett, had opposed these diplomatic releases, although they ultimately preferred freeing prisoners as a goodwill gesture for talks rather than halting construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
And despite the louder calls to end prisoner swaps since the teens disappeared, Reuven Hazan, chair of Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s political science department, says the desire to change the practice is no match for Israel’s promise that it will do whatever it takes to protect its soldiers and citizens.
Among the more than 300 arrested, Israeli officials have announced soldiers put back behind bars more than 50 former Palestinian prisoners who had been released in the trade for Gilad Shalit.
“If you’re the prime minister and you’ve got the Shalit family on TV every day for five years,” he said, “at some point you buckle.”