Israel’s kidnapping saga is finally over. Or is it?
The two Palestinian men suspected of kidnapping and murdering three Israeli teenagers in June were killed in a shootout with Israeli security forces, Israel said Tuesday, bringing some comfort to a nation deeply affected by the loss.
But their deaths before dawn in the West Bank city of Hebron are unlikely to restore the relative quiet that prevailed before the summer, given the escalation of Israeli-Palestinian violence since then and the declining faith among Palestinians in a peaceful path to end the conflict.
The overnight operation reportedly took place near Hebron University, where clashes broke out Tuesday morning between Israeli forces and Palestinians and at least one building was set on fire. That is but the latest example of growing unrest in the West Bank – not to mention East Jerusalem – since the June 12 kidnappings.
Israel’s detention of more than 400 Hamas suspects across the West Bank, in operations that led to the killing of 27 Palestinians by Israeli security forces, has inflamed tensions in the territory. July saw a fivefold uptick in Palestinian attacks against Israelis, and a spate of protests – one drawing more than 10,000 people.
Hamas followed Israel’s broad crackdown with an escalation in rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel in the run-up to a third Gaza war. The 7-week conflict, in which more than 2,100 Palestinians and 71 Israelis were killed, raised the Islamist movement’s popularity to a level unseen since 2006.
Support for President Abbas declines
The West Bank crackdown and Gaza war, which Hamas has hailed as a success, have fed the perception among Palestinians that non-violence and negotiations are ineffective, undermining Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
More than twice as many Palestinians say they would support Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh for president over Mr. Abbas, and 70 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank now support adopting Hamas’s method of fighting the Israeli occupation, according to a survey carried out immediately after the Aug. 26 Gaza cease-fire. Hamas’s TV station, Al Aqsa, is for the first time the No. 1 most-watched channel in the West Bank by a wide margin.
As for the kidnappings, nearly one-third of Palestinians in the West Bank don’t believe they even occurred, with many seeing it as an Israeli pretext for cracking down. Of the rest, 45 percent supported the teens’ kidnapping and 41 percent supported their murder.
Israel immediately blamed Hamas for the kidnapping and soon identified two main suspects, Amer Abu Aysha and Marwan Qawasme, whose family has connections to Hamas but is also known for engaging in violence even when Hamas seeks quiet. An exiled Hamas leader in Turkey has since said they were acting on behalf of the organization, though his level of operational knowledge is uncertain. An Israeli indictment stated that the suspects received funding from a Qawasme relative in Gaza to purchase four guns and a car with Israeli license plates.
A policy of kidnappings
Whether or not Hamas had foreknowledge of this particular kidnapping, it repeatedly encouraged kidnappings leading up to the event and has since championed both Mr. Qawasme and Mr. Abu Aysha. The fact that the two suspects were killed by Israeli troops in an apparent shoot-out may increase perceptions of their heroism and encourage other Palestinians to use violence to fight the Israeli occupation of lands conquered in 1967, where more than 600,000 Israelis now live.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri in Gaza was quoted by Reuters as saying, "Hamas praises the role martyrs Abu Aysha and Kawasme played in chasing down Israeli settlers, and we stress that their assassination will not weaken the resistance."
Israeli and Palestinian delegations are set to resume Cairo negotiations Tuesday over the terms of the Gaza cease-fire, after Palestinians decided against withdrawing their delegation in protest over the killings.