Last week, three Israeli teenagers, including one with possible American citizenship, were abducted in the West Bank. Both the Israeli government and Secretary of State John Kerry have blamed Hamas, the American and EU-listed terrorist group that just joined the Palestinian Authority’s U.S.-funded government.
For the Israeli government, Hamas responsibility for the kidnapping is a settled issue. “The information is incredibly clear to us,” an Israeli military source told Business Insider. When asked about other claims of involvement in the kidnappings by groups ranging from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the source said that “it would be kind of a waste to even look into it.”
The teenagers were abducted while attempting to hitchhike along a stretch of highway connecting the West Bank settlements of Kfar Etsiyon, Efrat and Migdal Oz. The communities fall outside the “Green Line,” the 1948 armistice line marking where Zionists fighters and the Jordanian Arab Legion were positioned at the end of Israel’s war for independence. In the 1967 Middle East War, the Israeli military captured the Jordanian-occupied territory between the “Green Line” and the Jordan River.
The area around Kfar Etsiyon had been home to Jewish communities before 1948. So in the decades after 1967, the hill country south of Jerusalem became one of the oldest and most contiguous settlement blocks inside of the formerly Jordanian-administrated areas. It is also one of the least controversial: in 2009, former president Jimmy Carter said that the “Gush Etsiyon” settlements would likely stay inside of Israel under a final peace settlement. One detailed “citizens proposal” for a future Israeli-Palestinian border includes the settlement bloc inside of Israel in the event of a peace treaty.
There are settlements that are deep in the territory of a future Palestinian state, sustained more by ideological commitment than convenience or potential quality of life. Gush Etsiyon is centrally-located, right next to both Jerusalem and Israel’s internationally-recognised borders. It doesn’t take a hardcore belief in Israel’s right to rule the West Bank to want to live there.
“Relatively speaking it’s a bourgeoisie neighbourhood,” Yisrael Medad, a spokesperson for the Yesha Council, the West Bank settlements’ main organising group, told Business Insider. “Efrat and El Azar are for all intents and purposes suburban areas … it’s a central area on the map.”
Here are a couple of undated photos of Tzomet Etsiyon, the junction where the students were reportedly kidnapped. There are concrete barriers and soldiers — but also a gas station, a vehicle with green Palestinian (as in West Bank-only) licence plates, and a handful of apparently-unarmed pedestrians:
The junction is a popular hitchhiking spot for Israelis, and Gush Etsiyon has sometimes-elaborate locally-used hand signals indicating where a potential passenger wants to go, and where a passing driver can take them. The area has also gotten quieter in recent years: 2012 was the first year in nearly four decades in which there were no Israeli citizens killed in terror attacks the West Bank.
So the kidnapping isn’t just a potential challenge to the new unity government — although even PA officials are saying that Hamas involvement could jeopardize the latest political accord. It also strikes inside an area of relative quiet for Israelis themselves. “Generally speaking, there has been a sense of security and stability and calm,” says the Israeli security source. “That is no way detracts or negates from the threats that exist there, but I wouldn’t say that people live with a sense of impending doom.”
If Hamas actually was responsible, the kidnappings might reveal just how decentralized the group and its decision-making structure have become in recent years. The group’s leadership is split between Gaza, the West Bank, Qatar, and Turkey, and it isn’t always clear how or why its decisions are made — or who’s truly acting on which leaders’ behalf.
“I don’t believe Hamas is of one mind when it comes to the unity government, or when it comes to trying to tempt Israel into another conflict,” says Jonathan Schanzer, an expert in Palestinian politics at the Washington-based Foundation for Defence of Democracies. “I think there are various actors with different motivations in what has become an increasingly complex organisation.”
In the West Bank, security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has turned Hamas into an underground organisation, split into diffuse cells, occasionally on a town-by-town basis.
If Hamas is involved with the kidnappings, it’s possible that one small corner of the group has decided to take down both the unity government and Gush Etsiyon’s sense of calm in a single act — while potentially dragging the region into a new round of Hamas-Israel confrontation.
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