For eighteen days an entire nation waited with bated breath, eyes and ears transfixed onto televisions and radios hoping to hear of any new developments. Security forces had been working non-stop for weeks in one of the most comprehensive searches the country had ever witnessed, in order to locate Gilad, Eyal, and Naftali, the Israeli boys abducted in the West Bank earlier this June as they were hitchhiking home. Police ended up searching thousands of homes and detaining hundreds of Palestinians in the West Bank during the investigation, including a number of senior Hamas officials. But a week ago the search came to a crushing halt as everyone’s worst fears were realized: the boys were not coming back.
The bodies of Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach, and Naftali Fraenkel were found buried in a field not far from where they had last been seen near Hebron, roughly a ten-minute drive. According to Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, they had been hastily covered with rocks in an apparent attempt to conceal them from view. Almost immediately after the bodies were found, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his condolences to the families of the victims and called for an emergency cabinet meeting, vowing to bring the perpetrators to justice. In his conception of who was behind the fatal kidnapping, Netanyahu remained unequivocal – “Hamas is responsible. Hamas will pay.”
During that night, Israeli security forces raided the home of Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha, the two Hamas members whom Israel publicly named as the prime suspects just last week, and who currently remain at large*. In an alleged attempt to force open a locked door, forces detonated an explosive in one of the living rooms after evacuating inhabitants from the home, partially destroying the structure. Less than fifty miles away Israeli planes conducted an air operation aimed at crippling Hamas infrastructure in the Gaza strip. By 4 AM Tuesday, Israel had already carried out a total of 34 targeted airstrikes, according to the IDF twitter page, in response to the barrage of rockets being fired into southern Israel.
Last week, Netanyahu accused Hamas for the first time since 2012 of being directly responsible for the escalation of violence along the Israeli-Gaza border. Despite continuing its tradition of sensationalist anti-Zionist rhetoric, Hamas by and large honored the Egyptian brokered ceasefire that ended the Israeli incursion into Gaza in 2012; sporadic rocket fire into Israel was blamed on independent militants functioning independent of Hamas’ authority. However, since the kidnapping, rockets have been launched from the strip at a rate unseen since before the 2012 operation. “Either Hamas stops it,” Netanyahu told a Parliament committee earlier this week, “or we will.”
Along with the increased rate of rocket attacks, Netanyahu holds Hamas responsible for the deaths of the three Israeli teenagers kidnapped in the West Bank. Despite denying any involvement in the abduction, Hamas has vocally supported the kidnapping and openly condemned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as a traitor for cooperating with Israeli forces. Hamas has, however, continually denied any involvement. “We reject all Israeli allegations and threats against us,” said Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri. Some have expressed regret that the boys were killed instead of being taken as hostages to be used as future leverage for the release of Palestinian terrorists in Israel. On his Facebook page, Hamas MP Mushir Al-Masri expressed this sentiment, though sardonically, “The body of three settlers discovered. Better luck next time, God willing.”
Indeed, it was not very long ago in 2011 when the world watched as a frail Gilad Shalit was exchanged for 1,027 Palestinians convicted of terrorist activity by Israel, many with blood on their hands, in a prisoner swap deal with Hamas. While the country rejoiced at the return of the young soldier who had spent five years in captivity, many feared the deal would set a dangerous precedent for the future and inevitably lead to more kidnappings; the deal qualified the Palestinian assumption that a single Israeli hostage could open the door for hundreds, perhaps thousands of Palestinians detained in Israeli jails, most of whom have been convicted of terrorist activity, with others being held on suspicion of terrorist activity. So why murder three innocent hostages when they could be used as hefty bargaining chips? There are a few possible answers.
The night of the kidnapping at approximately 10:30 PM one of the teenagers reportedly called the police. In a tape of the phone call which police made public on Wednesday, one of the boys can be heard whispering “I am kidnapped.” Yelling is soon heard in the background as investigators believe the kidnappers notice one of the boys on the phone. Immediately afterward gunshots can be heard on the tape. Investigators believe the kidnappers panicked and that this is the moment when the boys were fatally killed before being buried under a shallow pile of rocks near Hebron. At the time, police dismissed the call as a prank and did not give it any further attention until hours later when the teenagers were reported missing.
There are also reports that a branch of the radical Salafi-jihadist organization Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who have recently made headlines with a brutal rampage across Iraqi territory, were supposedly involved in the kidnapping. Pamphlets found in Hebron bore the ISIS name and insignia and claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, though investigators have noted that these pamphlets do not match others previously associated with the group, stylistically and in the ideological aims they espouse. Nevertheless, if the group responsible for the pamphlets circulated in the West Bank is not in fact a branch of ISIS, then it would mean a new unidentified terror cell is operating under the ISIS name, perhaps to inspire fear or attract more recruits who have been inspired by the gains made in Syria and Iraq. Investigators have not come out with any further details regarding this lead.
The uncertainty surrounding the three boys’ abduction and murder mirrors the uncertainty of what the aftermath will be. The recent events have brought the already fragile peace between Hamas and Israel to its weakest point since 2012, when Israeli forces invaded the Gaza Strip in Operation Pillar of Defense following a barrage of rocket-fire into southern Israel. Hamas has used the kidnappings to fan the flames for a third intifada and Netanyahu has assured his people that they will have their vengeance soon enough. Increased tensions have boiled over into a series of clashes that have erupted between Israeli settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank the past couple weeks, and have only magnified since the bodies were found.
The murder of a Palestinian teenager who was abducted Wednesday morning, 16-year-old Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, stoked tensions even further between the two groups. Netanyahu quickly condemned the murder as “despicable”, pleading both sides to exercise caution in the coming days while a full investigation was launched, and warning against possible vigilantes tempted to take justice into their own hands. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas blamed Israel for the death, saying in a press release that “Israel bears full responsibility for this incident,” as did Hamas in a public statement threatening to retaliate to avenge the boy. Israeli police stated that they have not ruled anything out and have urged people to be patient and not jump to any conclusions before the investigation was concluded.
Israeli leaders are currently traversing a dangerous tight-rope. There is mounting pressure for an Israeli military response, though it is unknown whether the focus of that operation will be on the West Bank, Gaza, or a combination of both. If escalation of clashes in the West Bank is to be avoided, Abbas will have to work with Netanyahu, though his cooperation with the Israeli investigation for the missing boys severely hurt his popularity with his people, and possibly his ability to have any effective control over them. At the same time, Netanyahu must find a way to deal with the surge in rocket attacks coming from the Gaza Strip – likely an expanded military response if he plans to make good on his promise to destroy Hamas’ infrastructure. This definitely won’t win him any favor with the Palestinians in Gaza or elsewhere, and could threaten to bring the Fatah controlled Palestinian Authority and Hamas closer together, something Netanyahu has vocally denounced and sought to avoid ever since the two parties formed a unity government earlier in June. With the relative order between both sides so close to unraveling, the next week will prove crucial in deciding the fates of both sides and whether a peace between Israel and Palestinians is even possible in this decade, let alone this generation.
Contributed by CAMERA intern Alexander Dumanis.