Israeli youth kidnappings: How focus on Hamas impacts Palestinian unity pact

Israel’s blaming of Hamas may bolster its case against the terrorist organization, but could also undermine crucial coordination between Israeli and Palestinian security forces.

Baz Ratner/Reuters
Israeli soldiers search a Palestinian vehicle at a checkpoint near the West Bank City of Hebron June 15, 2014. Israel said on Sunday Hamas militants had abducted three Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank, warning of "serious consequences" as it detained dozens of Palestinians.

Israel has zeroed in on Hamas as the culprit in the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers missing for three days. In Israel's eyes, such acts are the inevitable fruit of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s recent alliance with a movement Israel considers a terrorist organization.

“You remember that Israel warned the international community about the dangers of endorsing the Fatah-Hamas unity pact,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said today, referring to a deal first announced in April that led to the formation of a June 2 unity government. “I believe that the dangers of that pact now should be abundantly clear to all.”

But Israel is also walking a fine line: Its coordination with Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank is widely credited with establishing a relative calm over the past few years by helping Israeli forces to hunt down militants and thwart attacks on Israelis. 

Mr. Netanyahu blamed Mr. Abbas for the kidnapping, even though it took place in an Israeli-controlled area of the West Bank. He said Israel had seen an increase in "terrorist activity" since the Palestinian pact was agreed. 

On Friday, Hamas’s international spokesman in Gaza, Husam Badran, called for West Bank Palestinians to launch another intifada, or uprising, just hours after the kidnapping of Eyal Yifrach, 19, and 16-year-olds Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frankel, who were last seen at a hitchhiking post near their yeshiva in the West Bank.

Overnight Saturday, Israeli security forces detained some 80 Palestinians. Those arrested include most of Hamas’s political leaders in the West Bank as well as local activists in Hebron, according to veteran Israeli military affairs correspondent Amos Harel. Israel also launched air strikes in Gaza. 

In an environment where Israeli soldiers control the movement of Palestinians, and can detain suspects without charge for months on end, the PA’s coordination with Israeli security forces is deeply unpopular – particularly among Hamas supporters, who advocate armed resistance.

While Israel has sought help from PA security forces in tracking down the kidnappers, Hamas deeply disagrees with such security coordination though it does not appear to have the political leverage to stop it. 

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said yesterday that the PA's security coordination with Israel in the search for the missing Israelis is a “disgrace.” 

Hamas leaders have openly advocated kidnapping for political ends. It reportedly issued a Field Manual for Kidnapping, instructing recruits to become fluent in Hebrew among other things, and has taught not only its militants but also young boys at summer camps how to kidnap Israeli soldiers.

Hamas held captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for five years before releasing him in 2011 in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. 

Pact offers little recourse

Under the April deal, to which Hamas assented after being pushed into a corner by political isolation and financial woes, Hamas has little recourse. Security coordination with Israel is the “raison d’être” of the PA and essential for its international aid and recognition, say Hamas legislators in Hebron who did not want to be named. Any compromising of that coordination, and consequently of the PA, would hurt its ability to help ease the international isolation of Gaza.

“Hamas has a strategic decision to go on with the reconciliation is spite of all challenges around [it],” says Fathi Sabbah, a political affairs writer in Gaza for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper. “But this does not mean that the Islamic movement will stop slamming and rejecting the security coordination between Israel and the PA.”

Despite the bellicose rhetoric from both Israel and Hamas, however, there are significant reasons for both sides to exercise restraint. Stepped-up Israeli military action against Hamas could provoke a militant backlash, while a third intifada could bring Israeli incursions into major Palestinian cities.

“If the PA decides to adjust or security coordination policies, Israel would meet its security needs in the West Bank itself without the help of the PA, which means an open confrontation between militants in the West Bank and the Israeli army,” says Mr. Sabbah. “This would definitely lead to unacceptable consequences.”

Ahmed Aldabba in Gaza City, Gaza, and Nuha Musleh in Hebron, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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