Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian government have been treading carefully in the six days since the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers from a highway junction in the West Bank.
Israeli security forces have limited their operations to targeting West Bank-based members of the Islamist group Hamas, a U.S. and EU-listed terror organisation, and have re-arrested Hamas figures freed as part of the deal that secured the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011. But there hasn’t been an escalation nearly on par with Israel’s air strikes and ground operations in Gaza in the immediate aftermath of Shalit’s capture in 2006 — nor when the abduction of two soldiers along the Israeli-Lebanese border triggered an invasion of the country’s south that same summer.
This time around, Israeli operations are focused around a single part of the West Bank city of Hebron where the teenagers might be held and on individuals already on the security services’ radar. Israel has targeted the entirety of Hamas’s West Bank leadership, but this doesn’t look anything like the wide-scale Israel-Hamas confrontations of 2006, 2009 or 2012.
Although Hamas, the likely perpetrators of the kidnapping, hasn’t condemned the kidnappings — which was unlikely in any event for a group that’s responsible for tens of thousands of attacks on civilians over the past decade — its leadership seems mindful of the consequences of fully embracing or leveraging the kidnapping situation. Official Hamas outlets are denying the group’s responsibility for the West Bank kidnappings, a far cry from when Hamas’s Gaza-based leadership flaunted its responsibility for Shalit’s captivity, plastering his face on billboards throughout the Strip. And there’s been no barrage of rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli targets.
As Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies noted in an interview with Business Insider, Hamas is a dispersed and largely underground organisation in the West Bank. It’s possible that one small section of the group undertook this kidnapping on its own initiative and that the rest of the leadership doesn’t want to get dragged into a shooting war.
Neri Zilber, a research fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy currently in Tel Aviv, told Business Insider that Hamas can’t be said to have acted with restraint thus far because of the group’s likely involvement in the kidnappings. Still, they’re showing a certain pragmatism. “The fact that they’re acting coy now, not taking responsibility, is purely instrumental,” said Zilber. “They don’t want to hand Israel a reason to escalate further, especially in Gaza.”
The nationalist Fatah faction and the Palestinian Authority has condemned the kidnappings, and PA officials have said anonymously that if Hamas is responsible, the kidnappings could actually bring down the new unity government formed last month. But any intra-Palestinian crisis is beneath the surface at the moment. And the kidnappings might actually smooth over differences between Israel and the PA: Today, the head of Israel’s Labour Party spoke with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s chief of staff about the possibility of restarting peace negotiations after the teens are found.
Fatah is biding its time here, according to Grant Rumley, a Jerusalem-based visiting fellow for the Mitvim Institute. “Abbas/Fatah is using this Israeli crackdown to try to do as much damage as possible to Hamas while the search is ongoing,” he told Business Insider by email. “Obviously this feeds into the theory that once this search is over, reconciliation is going to fall apart and Fatah is going to go back to trying to crush Hamas.”
Hamas doesn’t want to jeopardize the unity government or its hold over Gaza by taking credit for the kidnappings and escalating its stance with Israel — the ceasefire signed after a 2012 Gaza flare-up has proven remarkably durable.
The Israelis have zeroed in on a specific part of Hebron where they believe the teens are being held and don’t seem eager to expand their operations beyond arresting known Hamas leaders.
The logic of caution is holding out for now. But with Hamas’s apparent responsibility for the abductions, Fatah working against Hamas behind the scenes, and the Israeli public increasingly anxious over the fate of its captured citizens, it might not hold out for long.
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