On June 12, three Israeli teenagers were abducted while hitchhiking at Alon Shvut Junction, in Gush Etzion, at a point where Israel has full administrative and security control. Although abductions have occurred before, this was the first time three civilian youths were kidnapped at the same time. Israel is using its military, security and intelligence services to recover the three boys.
It holds Hamas accountable for the kidnappings, and, therefore, a major secondary objective of its operation is to weaken or even eliminate Hamas’ presence in the West Bank.
While the boys have yet to be found and returned, Hamas is being systematically targeted and weakened. Although the long-term repercussions of the attack and Israel’s response will not be known for some time, the following is a preliminary analysis of the evolving political situation.
The major impact of the abductions has been to upset the status quo between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank since the end of the second intifada, as well as the period of relative calm existing in all arenas of the conflict since the November 2012 ‘Pillar of Defence’ operation. Until now, the Israeli military presence had been largely reduced in many West Bank areas. This operation has changed that.
While Israel’s intention was perhaps not that of collective punishment, it has largely been perceived as such by Palestinians whose day-to-day lives have been affected.
It has also jeopardised the reconciliation ostensibly achieved between Fatah and Hamas after the announcement of the Palestinian unity government earlier this month. It is not clear whether the reconciliation agreement was made in good faith or if it was simply a pretext for Hamas gaining a foothold for its armed “resistance” in the West Bank. Hamas appeared to embark on the unity agreement because of depleted finances and regional isolation. It faces weakened or broken ties with its traditional allies in Iran and Syria, as a result of the Syrian civil war.
Furthermore, the ongoing turmoil in Egypt has replaced a friendly Muslim Brotherhood government with a military-led regime that has closed the tunnels Hamas has relied on for both military and taxation purposes. It may have believed the unity agreement would help alleviate such difficulties, as well as to enhance its influence and presence in the West Bank. Hamas and Fatah have radically different views regarding the best means to pursue the Palestinian national struggle.
Mahmoud Abbas, for his part, believed a unity government would allow Fatah to co-opt Hamas, if only nominally, into an international legal struggle for Palestine.
If Hamas is indeed behind the attack, it was likely motivated by two considerations. The first is a desire to generate a popular response from the Palestinian public. The Palestinian prisoner issue strikes an emotional chord among Palestinians; the expression of public support for the kidnappings among Palestinians reflects this. Second, Hamas wishes to portray itself as the party that keeps the flame of resistance alight, which further serves to delegitimise Abbas. The abductions are a new tactic to advance this objective. Furthermore, it represents a direct challenge to Abbas’ strategy of non-violent legal struggle; Abbas has indeed publicly called for the release of the three boys, which may only serve to further undermine his authority.
The unity government had ostensibly paved the way for Palestinian elections. Yet whether or not they take place in the aftermath of recent developments, it’s likely that Abbas is entering the last phase of his leadership. Though he enjoys some degree of international approval, he has very little support from the Palestinian public, portions of which view him as a collaborator with Israel. There are other leaders within Fatah, such as Mohammad Dahlan, the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, and others, who are more popular, and who are waiting for their opportunity, but it is not clear if there is a clear consensus on a successor to Abbas.
Furthermore, this kidnapping has exposed the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian security situation is much more combustible than sometimes thought.
In the absence of an acceptable political solution, the pendulum swings between a cycle of punishment, ‘deterrence,’ and periods of deceptive quiet. Moreover, it is likely to be increasingly volatile without some sort of proactive resolution.