Israel on Wednesday was pursuing a two-fold mission in the West Bank: Find three Israeli teenagers presumed to have been kidnapped last week and crack down on the Palestinian militant organization Hamas.
The three yeshiva students -- Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel, both 16, and 19-year-old Eyal Yifrah -- disappeared while hitchhiking home through the West Bank on Thursday night.
Yifrah managed to dial police and whisper, “We’ve been kidnapped,” police have said. But it was dismissed as a prank, giving abductors a head-start of several hours before the search began.
So far, there has been no credible claim of responsibility for the kidnapping.
Israel has accused the Palestinian militant organization Hamas -- “We know this for a fact,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said.
Hamas officials have praised the teens’ capture but have not said they were responsible.
Thousands of Israeli soldiers have been deployed to sweep the West Bank for the missing youths, focusing on the region around Hebron. A curfew has been declared in the area and roadblocks set up.
What began as a search operation has expanded in scope in recent days. Israel is now openly targeting Hamas. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon promised Wednesday to “exact a heavy price” against the organization.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett told reporters that Hamas would “hurt more every day” that the youths were held and would be made to understand that “membership in Hamas is a ticket to hell.”
So far, about 200 Palestinians have been arrested in a series of nightly raids, the latest ones around the city of Nablus and surrounding refugee camps.
As long as the teens remain captive, “Hamas will feel pursued, paralyzed and threatened,” army spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said. He added that the army was committed to resolving the kidnapping while “debilitating Hamas terrorist capabilities, its infrastructure and recruiting institutions.”
In addition to hunting down known fighters, the Israeli army has arrested members of the Palestinian Authority parliament and other civilians. It is also targeting organizations, such as charities, that Israel suspects Hamas uses to recruit operatives and channel money for attacks.
“The unfortunate circumstances have given Israel several advantages,” said Giora Eiland, an analyst and Israel’s former national security advisor.
One is the opportunity to crack down on Hamas in the West Bank, which Israel could not have done otherwise, he said.
The incident has also strained the already fragile relations between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The tensions have “widened into a real crack, raising questions about the future” of the recent reconciliation between them, Eiland said.
Palestinian intelligence officials reportedly share Israel’s assessment that Hamas, or elements of it, are behind the abduction.
Israeli media outlets quoted an unidentified Palestinian Authority official as saying that the unity accord with Hamas would be void if it is proved they are responsible.
Family members of the three missing youths met Wednesday at the home of the Frenkels in the Israeli community of Nof Ayalon, near the border with the West Bank. At a news conference, they expressed gratitude to all those taking part in the search and asked the public to continue praying for the boys.
Senior Israeli military and government officials have vowed to continue the West Bank operation as long as needed, advising patience.
Netanyahu again convened his security cabinet Wednesday to review Israel’s response to the abductions. Among other measures, it was decided to toughen conditions for Hamas prisoners jailed in Israel.
At a meeting in Tel Aviv with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, envoy for the so-called Mideast quartet, Netanyahu called on the international community to support Israel’s right to self-defense, condemn Hamas and urge Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to end the pact with the militant organization.
Some observers have noted that Abbas is challenged by strong public support for the kidnapping, which many Palestinians see as the only way to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jail.
The fate of the prisoners is an emotive issue for Palestinians. Their government includes a designated minister for prisoners affairs, and according to Israeli press reports, the Palestinian Authority pays more than $10 million a month to support current and former prisoners.
The issue is equally important to Israelis. Before the abduction, Israel’s refusal to release Palestinians convicted of murdering Israelis was one of the issues that brought U.S.-brokered peace talks to a halt.
Israel has long grappled with the sensitive topic of prisoner exchanges. Amid much public controversy, Israel has freed thousands of prisoners in heavily lopsided deals with Lebanese and Palestinian organizations. They included a 2011 agreement in which Israel released more than 1,000 Palestinians in exchange for one soldier, Gilad Shalit, held captive by Hamas in the Gaza Strip for five years.
Some Israelies argue that the practice should end.
“Releasing terrorists is a concept that has exhausted itself,” Bennett said. “Three years ago we released 1,000 terrorists, and they understand kidnapping pays off. The cycle will never end if we continue,” he told reporters.
Sobelman is a special correspondent.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times