In wake of teen deaths, Israel vows to crush Hamas

The bodies of the three yeshiva students were recovered near Hebron. Israel's deputy defense minister called for the destruction of Hamas, which threatened retaliation in turn.

Majdi Mohammed/AP
Israeli police officers block a road with their police vehicles in the village of Halhul, near the West Bank town of Hebron, where the bodies of the three missing Israeli teenagers were found, Monday, June 30, 2014. The Israeli military found the bodies of three missing teenagers on Monday, just over two weeks after they were abducted in the West Bank, allegedly by Hamas militants.

After 18 days of searching and nationwide prayers, the discovery of the bodies of three kidnapped Israeli teens has prompted an outpouring not only of grief but also a desire for revenge against Hamas

“Alongside deep sorrow, we will remain resolute to punish the atrocious terrorists,” said Nobel Peace Laureate Shimon Peres, whose seven-year presidential term ends today. “Our war against terrorism will only intensify and will not waver so that this murderous terrorism won't dare to rear its head."

A full-scale Israeli assault against Hamas, the Islamist movement that has amassed rockets in the Gaza Strip capable of striking Tel Aviv, is almost certain to fuel escalation along the Gaza-Israel border. Hamas vowed retaliation.

"If [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] wages war on the Gaza Strip, the gates of hell will be opened,” warned a Hamas spokesman this afternoon.

Given widespread Palestinian bitterness over Israel’s detention of its own boys and young men on a regular basis, as well as the deaths of at least five Palestinians during the military search operation, a strong Israeli retaliation now could provoke widespread unrest in the West Bank as well.

But Israelis are ready to risk such consequences, says Gershon Baskin, the founder of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.

“The Israeli public is fed up, it is prepared for a military operation even if they know rockets are going to fly all over this country,” he says.

Military raids, arrests

Israeli media confirmed tonight that the bodies of Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel were found north of Hebron after a wide-ranging operation that included the arrest of more than 350 Palestinians, sweeps of 1,800 locales, and the raiding of 64 Islamic charities suspected of having links to Hamas. The teens were yeshiva students in the West Bank looking to hitchhike home for the weekend. 

The two suspects named by Israel, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amar Abu Aisha, are reportedly members of Hamas but Mr. Qawasmeh comes from a large clan that has a track record of overstepping Hamas policy vis-à-vis Israel.

But even if it is proven that those directly responsible were rogue Hamas elements acting on their own, Hamas as an organization must be held accountable, says Shaul Shay, former deputy head of the Israel National Security Council and now with the Institute of Policy & Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

“I think if there is hard evidence regarding the responsibility of Hamas, no matter which type, kind, or branch of Hamas … they have to pay – and a high price,” he says. “Because this is the matter of deterrence, which is critical to preventing future abductions.”

Trouble for Hamas

While the Hamas leadership has consistently advocated abductions, the latest kidnapping could not have come at a worse time for the organization, which is weaker politically than it has been for years.

“It’s a particularly bad time for Hamas to be engaged in an action like this and that’s why I didn’t think they were responsible for this from the beginning,” says Mr. Baskin, who established the backchannel for negotiations that led to the release of Sgt. Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas in 2006 and held for five years.

“Hamas could not have believed that an abduction of Israelis in the West Bank could be handled in the same way as with Gilad Shalit in Gaza,” he says, citing Israel’s far greater intelligence capabilities and control of the West Bank. “It was very unlikely that there would even be a negotiation…. They would be caught the moment they opened up a phone.”

At stake is Hamas’s recent reconciliation agreement with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which is key to easing the deterioration of living conditions in the Gaza Strip. Israel has called on Mr. Abbas to call off the reconciliation agreement, and is likely to increase such pressure.

But the greatest pressure is likely to be on Hamas, which is classified by the US and European Union as a terrorist organization. 

"This tragic ending must also be the ending of Hamas! The nation is strong and ready to absorb [attacks] for the sake of a mortal blow against Hamas,” said Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. “[W]e have to destroy the homes of Hamas activists, wipe out their arsenals everywhere, and stop the flow of money that directly or indirectly keeps terror alive... make the entire Palestinian leadership pay a heavy price."

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