By Dylan Collins
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Monday that the search for three missing settler teenagers may drag on, as initial efforts over the weekend turned into what seems to be a comprehensive crackdown on Hamas affiliates throughout the West Bank.
“We are in the middle of a complex operation,” the prime minister said in a televised speech Monday evening. “We need to be prepared for the fact that it may take more time… It is a serious incident and will have grave consequences.”
Netanyahu has placed blame for the teens’ disappearance, without providing proof, squarely in Hamas’ hands, and is holding Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas responsible for the their safe return. He even went as far as breaking the year-long silence between the two, taking the time to personally call Abbas on Monday to warn him of his obligation.
As of Tuesday morning, Israeli forces had arrested more than 160 Palestinians across the West Bank in their search for the missing boys since efforts began early Friday morning. Among the detainees are seven Palestinian lawmakers, including Aziz Dweik, the speaker of the now long-defunct Palestinian parliament, bringing the grand total of Palestinian parliamentarians currently held within Israeli prisons to 20, the vast majority of which are Hamas affiliates.
Many fear that such broad measures may indicate Israel is keen on using the apparent abductions as a politically expedient excuse to dismantle Hamas’ presence in the West Bank, while simultaneously sticking a fork in the prospects of any future working relationship with the recently formed Palestinian unity government.
Netanyahu said as much on Sunday in a televised address — in English mind you — aimed at garnering international support. “The kidnappers in this case set out from territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority and the PA cannot absolve itself of its responsibility,” he said. “You’ll remember that Israel warned the international community about the dangers of endorsing the Fatah-Hamas unity pact. I believe that the dangers of that pact should now be abundantly clear to all.”
Israel’s security cabinet met on Monday to discuss further sanctions on Hamas, an Islamic militant group both Israel and the West have labeled as a terrorist group. Potential measures reportedly include exiling top Hamas affiliates from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, demolishing their homes, and/or imposing restrictions on Hamas inmates in Israeli prisons.
“It’s quite clear, when you consider the amount and scale of arrests, that there is something larger going on,” Gavan Kelly, advocacy coordinator at Addameer, a Palestinian prisoner support and human rights association based in Ramallah, told VICE News. “Israel has stumbled upon a golden opportunity.”
The teens’ disappearance comes at time when tensions are high between Israel and the Palestinians. Reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas in April lead to the formation of a unity government in late May, ending a seven-year division between the two main Palestinian political parties. With elections set to take place in five months, Israeli authorities are worried that Hamas may take over the Palestinian Authority as it did after winning the last elections back in 2006.
Mustafa Barghouti, Palestinian legislator and chairman of the Palestinian National Initiative, told VICE News that he believes Israel’s mass arrests indicate an “attempt to break the political will of the Palestinian people.”
“Their overall goal is to keep us divided and weak,” he said. “They have been using our political divisions as an excuse to avoid genuine and meaningful peace talks for seven years now.”
Although the Israeli military has focused on the Hebron district — the entire southern West Bank has been on lockdown since Sunday— Israeli military spokesperson Peter Lerner told VICE News on Monday that three infantry brigades, in addition to military Special Forces, Shin Bet intelligence officers, and Israeli police are cracking down on Hamas members throughout the West Bank, “on both the operative and leadership levels.” This indicates a much broader mandate than a simple search and rescue mission.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see, from our investigation and questioning [of detainees], developments on other terrorist attacks that were planned or even taking place due to this activity,” Lerner said, while standing in an impromptu Israeli military encampment in the center of Hebron.
“I would also add that beyond the activities that are on going around this specific incident, because of Hamas’ involvement in it, we are striking Hamas and that’s why it’s beyond Hebron, it’s beyond this area,” he continued. “It’s the leadership, it’s on all levels — to try and return Hamas to its natural place, where it needs to be, so that it doed not pose a threat.”
Abbas’ aides have been quick to criticize Netanyahu’s contention that the PA is ultimately responsible for the teens’ disappearance, arguing the junction where the teens were last seen is part of the 60 percent of the West Bank that falls under complete Israeli civil and military control.
Security coordination in the West Bank between the PA and Israel — in place since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 — has regularly targeted Hamas-affiliated activists. Although Abbas has said that such coordination will continue under the new government, releasing a public response to Netanyahu’s criticism emphasizing the special “relationship of coordination” could kill the newly established Palestinian unity.
Despite Netanyahu’s criticisms and Abbas’ preference to keep quiet on the matter, Lerner said the Israeli military and the “Palestinian security apparatus” are “on the same page,” and that their “working relationship” has continued as usual.
So with security coordination continuing as usual, why has Netanyahu been so quick to attack Abbas and his new government?
Kelly of Addameer argues that we aren’t witnessing anything new. “Yes, it’s an opportunity to frame the new government as nothing but a bunch of terrorists, an excuse to avoid any negotiations because there ‘is no real partner,’” he said. “But nothing really has changed. All we are seeing is a recycling of the same Israeli tactics we’ve seen over and over again.”