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Israel’s search for kidnapped teens: What is known so far, and what it means

A robust Israeli security operation to bring home three kidnapped teenagers has turned into a much wider crackdown on Hamas, which could potentially lead to a violent escalation after years of relative calm.

“The operation has developed over the past three days [beyond] the primary target … to strike a substantial hit to Hamas,” Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner told reporters today. 

Here’s a look at what is known so far about the incident and what it means for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Where did the kidnapping take place?

Israeli yeshiva students Eyal Yifrach (19), Gilad Shaar (16), and Naftali Frenkel (16) reportedly got into a car at about 10:15 p.m. on Thursday, June 16. They were last seen at a hitchhiking post at the Alon Shvut junction near their school in the West Bank, located about halfway between Jerusalem and Hebron.

When did the search begin?

At 10:25 p.m., one of the teens called the police, whispering, “We’ve been kidnapped.” However the police, who receive dozens of prank calls a day, did not inform Israeli security forces until about 4 a.m. on June 17, shortly after Gilad’s parents reported him missing.

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The last signal from the cellphone used to call the police came about 11:30 p.m. in the area of Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank.

On midday Friday, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) began a house-to-house search in Hebron. From Sunday, June 15, Israel erected military checkpoints around Hebron; closed the closest crossings into Israel to all Palestinians, including those who have work permits in Israel; and placed a travel ban on all male Hebron residents aged 16 to 50 on going to Jordan. Jerusalem-based human rights group B’tselem criticized the “collective punishment” of such travel restrictions.

Why does Israel think Hamas is behind the kidnapping?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said unequivocally on Sunday, June 15, that Hamas is behind the kidnapping. However, no evidence has been made public.

IDF spokesman Col. Peter Lerner said today that amid the sensitive investigation, no information would be released that could jeopardize the search or give the abductors an advantage in any negotiations for the prisoners’ release.

While the precise identity of the kidnappers is not known, he said, he added that Israeli security forces have foiled 64 abductions since the beginning of 2013 – most affiliated with Hamas.

About 240 Palestinians across the West Bank have been arrested so far since the kidnapping, the majority of whom are Hamas members, including former ministers, parliamentarians, and a Hamas founder.

Why is Israel launching a broader crackdown on Hamas?

Lerner says that the expansion of the operation beyond its primary goal of locating the kidnappers is intended to “take a toll” on Hamas. Gilad Erdan, a member of Mr. Netanyahu’s security cabinet, went further, saying that “the end result of any military operation should be the eradication of the Hamas movement.”

The kidnapping incident came just two weeks after the Palestinian Authority based in the West Bank reconciled with Hamas after a seven-year split. Israel says that the PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s alliance with Hamas – which Israel considers a terrorist organization – is a clear choice against peace and security, holding up the kidnapping as prime evidence. 

How have Palestinians responded?

President Abbas has condemned the kidnapping and called for the teens’ release, and PA security forces have continued to coordinate with Israel, although their exact involvement remains unclear.

Hamas has called such security coordination with Israel a “disgrace,” but after years of political isolation, financial woes, and the loss of key sponsors in Iran and Syria, it has little leverage to end it.

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The massive search operation, waves of arrests, house searches, and restrictions on travel have significantly disrupted Palestinian lives in a way not seen for years. Many Palestinians have taken to social media to criticize what they see as undue emphasis on the teens’ fate over the suffering of Palestinians, especially just a month after two Palestinians teens were killed by Israeli soldiers at a protest in Beitunia. It also comes amid a hunger strike by close to 300 Palestinian prisoners, some of whom are being held without trial. Some Palestinians advocate kidnapping Israelis as bargaining chips for the release of prisoners.

In contrast with Abbas’s condemnation, average Palestinians have taken to social media to hail the capture of the “three Shalits” with a three-finger salute, and have adopted the Jewish hashtag #BringBackOurBoys and used it to press for the release of their young men arrested by Israeli security forces.

What is the potential for an escalation of violence?

Residents of Gaza are bracing for another round of war with Israel, which has already stepped up air strikes. Meanwhile in the West Bank, a rare Palestinian sniper on a major highway – not far from the site of the kidnapping – as well as settlers reportedly throwing stones at Palestinian cars, signal a heightening of tensions.

While the PA, which is dependent on Western foreign aid, has a clear interest in maintaining relative calm, it is somewhat limited in its ability to rein in Hamas without undermining the recent reconciliation deal or provoking public unrest.

And while Israel has the military capability to launch full-scale incursions to crack down on terrorism in both Gaza and the West Bank, it would risk a potential backlash both from the international community and its Palestinian neighbors.

But Israel appears firmly resolved to find both the kidnappers and their captives, and any broader consequences will be dealt with down the road.