Israeli soldiers take part in a search operation for three Israeli teenagers believed kidnapped by Palestinian militants, on June 18 in the West Bank village of Tapuah, west of Hebron. (Hazem Bader / AFP)
TEL AVIV — Even if Israeli teens allegedly held captive by Hamas militants are found and safely returned to an anxiously awaiting nation, Israel’s ongoing rescue operation could continue indefinitely until the West Bank is sufficiently “cleansed” of the threat posed by the Islamic terror organization, officials here say.
Launched in response to the June 12 kidnapping of three teens hitchhiking in a Palestineian Authority (PA)-controlled area of the West Bank, Operation Brother’s Keeper — now in its sixth day — has morphed into a mission of “cleansing the stables” of the Hamas threat, a top officer told reporters here.
In methodical, house-to-house maneuvers, Israeli security forces have so far arrested more than 240 Palestinians suspects, including 53 prisoners released in a 2011 exchange for a single Israeli soldier.
With nine brigades supported by air power, commandos and myriad intelligence units, Israel is targeting “all levels of Hamas, from tactical operatives to its institutions all the way up to its strategic leadership,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman.
Despite denials from Hamas leaders in Gaza, Lerner told reporters June 18 that Israel is “confident” Hamas is responsible for the attack.
Meanwhile, PA President Mahmoud Abbas came out June 18 with an unequivocal condemnation of the attack. While he didn’t specifically blame Hamas — his ostensible partner in a new consensus government installed last month — Abbas assailed the perpetrators as enemies of the PA.
“Those who kidnapped the three teenagers want to destroy us,” Abbas said in an address to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting in Saudi Arabia. The PA leader reiterated his commitment to continued security coordination with Israel.
Lerner said PA security forces were cooperating “not out of love for Israel, but for their own interests.” Nevertheless, “From our point of view, we don’t depend on them... We’ll count on ourselves.”
He noted the ongoing operation has expanded in recent days from its initial focus on the area near Hebron to all parts of the West Bank.
“Over the last three days, the mission has developed beyond the primary target of bringing the boys home to striking a substantial blow to Hamas,” Lerner said. “Ultimately, they must pay the price for openly declaring their intent to carry out such attacks.”
Lerner said troops are operating under the assumption that the missing teens are still alive and being held in the West Bank, but that Israel is preparing for other scenarios.
The mission, he said, “will probably take time.”
When asked if it he expected the operation to continue in the increasingly unlikely event that the teens were safely returned, he replied: “I expect this operation not to cease ... Hamas cannot be strong enough to carry out these attacks.”
Meeting June 18 meeting with families of the abducted teens, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon hinted that the ongoing operation could escalate. “There’s nothing that is limiting our action,” he said. “All the intelligence and operational capabilities of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the Shin Bet and the Israel Police are available for the benefit of this highest-priority operation.”
Ya’alon said Israel wouldn’t relent until it “puts its hands on the kidnappers” and returns the missing teens. But in parallel, Ya’alon said Israel aims to damage Hamas’ infrastructure in the West Bank.
Gerald Steinberg, senior professor of international relations at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, said the expanding operation aims to undermine Hamas’ strategic and political objectives in the West Bank.
In a June 18 interview, he noted it’s been 12 years since the IDF’s last major ground operation in the PA-controlled territory. During that time, Hamas has been able to recreate terror cells and solidify its social standing among the Palestinian population.
“Israel is taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the current operation,” Steinberg said. “Israel has a long list of suspects, and this operation allows the IDF to conduct a very detailed sweep of operatives, weaponry, tunnels and other things that can sow instability.”
He added, “When Israeli security forces conclude their mission, it will be tremendously more difficult for Hamas to take control of the West Bank through elections or violence, as they did in Gaza back in 2007.” ■