Peace on Hold as Kidnapping of Israeli Teens Divides Palestinians; the Kidnapping of Three Israeli Teens Is Dividing Palestinians-And Puts the Palestinian Authority Chief's Leadership at Risk

By Avni, Benny | Newsweek, July 4, 2014 | Go to article overview

Peace on Hold as Kidnapping of Israeli Teens Divides Palestinians; the Kidnapping of Three Israeli Teens Is Dividing Palestinians-And Puts the Palestinian Authority Chief's Leadership at Risk


Avni, Benny, Newsweek


Byline: Benny Avni

The kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers is not just a tragedy for their families. The massive Israeli military operation it has sparked has exposed wide gaps between the two major Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, and threatens to end the cooperation pact their leaders signed only last month. And it is causing Palestinian chief Mahmoud Abbas to put his leadership at risk.

Jerusalem officials acknowledge that while the main goal of the Israeli Defense Forces's (IDF) operations in the West Bank is to locate and free the teenagers, they also hope to weaken Hamas in the process by dismantling its military, political, financial and educational infrastructure in the West Bank.

Though moving slowly, Israel risks a widening of the hostilities on the eve of the monthlong Ramadan holiday. With rockets from Gaza and the death of an Israeli teen in the Golan Heights over the June 21 weekend, and with Israeli retaliation on both borders, what started as a kidnaping could engulf the whole region. It could also strengthen Abbas by weakening his internal opposition from Hamas.

Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, signed a unity agreement with Hamas last month, but now he is said to be livid about the abduction, which he sees as an attempt to undermine his strategy of pressuring Israel to accommodate his demands by nonviolent means. He has instructed his forces to cooperate with Israel and help free the teenagers--an approach that has angered Hamas officials.

Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said Hamas is behind the kidnapping, although Israel declined to produce concrete evidence that the terrorist organization was responsible. Israeli troops are concentrating much of their operation, their most massive since 2002, around the West Bank's southern city of Hebron, a Hamas stronghold where the teens are believed to be hidden.

Fatah officials said that if Hamas is behind the attack, it would mean the end of the unity pact signed in May after the collapse of the U.S.-led peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel. Hamas praised the kidnappers but has declined so far to take responsibility for the abduction.

"Hamas terrorists are behind this abduction--that we know for certain," said Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, an IDF spokesman. "The reason we're being secretive" about the evidence of Hamas's complicity "is that we don't want to hand over any information that can give them the upper hand."

On June 12, Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16 (who has U.S. citizenship), were hitchhiking on their way home from a school in Gush Etzion, a large Jewish settlement block in the West Bank. They were apparently picked up by the kidnappers, who then vanished, leaving a burned car behind.

Dore Gold, a senior adviser to Netanyahu, said that since the unity agreement was signed between Hamas and Fatah, Israel has experienced an uptick in attacks. Though many have hoped that the reconciliation would moderate the terror group, he said, "Hamas has not moderated in any way." Freeing the teenagers is the first goal of the IDF's operations in the West Bank, Gold added, "but if in the process of turning over every rock you give a blow to Hamas infrastructure, all the better."

During clashes near Hebron on June 20, a Palestinian boy, Jihad Dudeen, 15, was reportedly killed, signaling the dangers of the IDF's strategy. While they have instructed soldiers to avoid harming the Palestinian population and non-Hamas operatives, Israeli commanders are well aware that their massive operation could easily turn into a major clash that would ignite the whole region.

"The situation is combustible," said Efraim Sneh, a former head of Israel's civilian administration of the West Bank who served as a top cabinet minister in several Labor-led governments. Sneh said he supports the IDF's anti-Hamas strategy, noting, "Anyone who weakens Hamas is welcome. …

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