Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1203, (26 June - 2 July 2014)
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1203, (26 June - 2 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Aftermath of abductions

Despite several groups claiming responsibility for the abduction in the West Bank of three teenage Israeli settlers, Netanyahu is determined to place the blame on Hamas, writes Ahmed Al-Sayed from Gaza

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The abduction in the West Bank of three teenage settlers has sparked off a wide-scale Israeli military operation, amid accusations by Israeli officials that Hamas is behind the abductions. Hamas, which is now part of a national unity government that ended seven years of rift with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), denied responsibility for the abductions.

The abductions placed the government of Binyamin Netanyahu in an awkward position, as only a few weeks back it passed a law banning further prisoner swaps with the Palestinians.

Observers believe that the abductions, which took place in an area under Israeli security control, aimed in particular to guarantee the release of further Palestinian detainees.

Palestinian-Israeli peace talks collapsed recently over Israel’s refusal to release another batch of long-serving Palestinian prisoners. The refusal alienated the government of Mahmoud Abbas, impelling it to launch an unprecedented alliance with Hamas, a group that both Israel and the US designate as “terrorist”.

As a group of Palestinian detainees held without trial or charges in Israeli prisons began a hunger strike to demand an end to their illegal imprisonment, several Palestinian leaders, including those of Hamas, said that prisoner swaps, not negotiations, seem to be the surest way to secure the freedom of hundreds of prisoners held by Israel.

But the abductions led to a sudden rise in the number of Palestinian prisoners, from 5,200 to 5,600 within days, as Israel’s dragnet generated more arrests, exacerbating an already charged situation.

The last successful prisoners swap was conducted in late 2011, leading to the release of dozens of Palestinians in return to the freeing of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier abducted on 25 June 2006.

Palestinian officials characterised the Israeli army’s “Operation Brother’s Keeper”, in which homes were searched in the West Bank following the abductions, as heavy-handed. Residents say that with the military operation now in its second week, it is still difficult to see an end in sight.

Israeli security forces are yet to find a clue about the identity of the kidnappers or the fate of the abducted.

The operation led to the arrest of hundreds of Hamas members and the recapture of dozens of inmates who were freed in the Shalit exchange. The Israelis also arrested Aziz Duwaik, speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and threatened him and other Hamas leaders with deportation from the West Bank.

Residents speak of dozens of homes and shops being searched in the West Bank, with some being demolished.

Analysts believe that the ferocity of the current campaign is designed to discredit the current Palestinian government of national unity and punish President Abbas for making peace with Hamas.

Ibrahim Abrash, political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, said that Israel wants the Palestinians to pay “a heavy price” for trying to resolve their differences and form a joint front.

The Netanyahu government wants to divert attention from the impasse in the peace negotiations, he added.

According to Abrash, Netanyahu is trying to use the crisis in order to shore up his position and rally public sympathy.

Israeli analysts, meanwhile, believe that the abductions complicated the position of the Netanyahu government.

Amit Segal, a political analyst for Israel’s Channel 2 TV, said that Israel is not in the habit of swapping prisoners until all military methods have been exhausted. Before agreeing for a swap on Shalit, Israel went through five years of battles against Hamas, he remarked.

Shalit was released on 18 October 2011 in an Egyptian-brokered deal.

Three different organisations claimed responsibility for the abduction of the teenage settlers: The Hebron Free Men, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades.

Israel didn’t take any of these claims seriously, saying that the groups in question don’t have the logistical capabilities to carry out such an operation.

Netanyahu wasted no time in blaming Hamas for the abduction. Speaking at the government weekly meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu said that Israel “has proof that it’s Hamas”.

“We’re currently exchanging this information with other countries and we will soon publish the proof,” he said Sunday.

For his part, President Mahmoud Abbas denounced both the abductions and the security clampdown that followed.

Speaking at a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah last week, Abbas criticised the abductors of the teenage settlers in words that raised eyebrows even among his supporters back home. “Those who committed such an act want to destroy us,” he said.

Abbas, who promised to cooperate with the Israelis in looking for the settlers, accused Netanyahu of using the incident to inflict more pain on the Palestinians.

The Palestinian president warned that such acts could undermine not just his authority, but also the welfare of the nation.

Promising that his government will help in the search for the settlers, he said: “We don’t want to go back to chaos and destruction as we did in the second Intifada.”

His remarks, while greeted with public Palestinian disapproval, are likely to have repercussions for his precarious alliance with Hamas.

The Israeli mini-cabinet is already taking punitive measures against Hamas, including the possibility of deporting key Hamas officials from the West Bank to Gaza.

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon threatened to resume the target killings of Hamas politicians and military commanders.

Speaking to journalists, Yaalon said: “We know how to inflict a heavy price on the Hamas leaders at the time and place we see suitable.”

Yaalon pointed out that the Israeli army aborted more than 50 attempted abductions of its soldiers in the past year.

Hamas leaders, for their part, refused to react to Israel’s accusations, while shrugging them off as a pretext for a brutal occupation force to inflict more oppression on the Palestinians.

Sami Abu Zahri, a spokesman for Hamas, described Netanyahu’s statements as “stupid” and “ill-motivated”.

Abu Zahri added: “Hamas is not prepared to comment on the Zionist narrative that aims to justify the aggression against our people.”

“It is the right of the Palestinian people to defend themselves and take action on behalf of the prisoners languishing in occupation prisons,” he added.

Observers note that due to the rugged terrain of the West Bank, it may not be hard for the abductors to keep the settlers away from sight for a long time.

Abdel-Sattar Qassem, professor of political science in An-Najah National University in Nablus, says that the abductions seem to be well planned.

“It will be humiliating for Israel if it fails to find the settlers and has to go through another prisoner exchange,” he said.

As part of its military campaign, the Israeli army is shelling facilities associated with the Qassam Brigades of Hamas and the Quds Brigades of the Islamic Jihad.

The Israelis have deployed Iron Dome anti-missile batteries in Ashdod and Ashkelon, as well as other southern cities, in preparation for possible Palestinian retaliation.

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