Israeli army troops arrive June 24 in the area between the West Bank village of Halhul and the adjacent city of Hebron as a search operation to locate three Israeli teenagers continues. (Hazem Bader / Getty Images)
Israel is leveraging its ongoing West Bank operation against Hamas, the Islamic organization it blames for the June 12 abduction of three missing teens, to test a new strategy for deterring terrorist trade in Israeli captives, security sources say.
Through mass arrests and sweeping raids of affiliated social, charitable and financial institutions, Israel is targeting the organization’s operational capacity and political incentive for seizing soldiers and civilians as bargaining chips in future prisoner-exchange deals.
Operation “Brother’s Keeper” offers a fertile proving ground for testing the aggressive counter-abduction strategy, but experts here warn results must be measured by time.
After 12 days of meticulous maneuvering operations, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) claims 371 arrests and a treasure trove of documents, weaponry and some US$233,000 seized from 1,095 sites throughout the West Bank.
Of the 371 arrested suspects, the IDF claims 282 are members or enablers of Hamas, 57 of whom were released in a 2011 deal that traded 1,027 security prisoners for a single Israeli soldier.
“We’re sending a clear message that abducting civilians or soldiers is not worthwhile,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, and IDF spokesman.
“That’s why we’re committed to this holistic effort aimed at all levels of the [Hamas] organization; not just the issue at hand,” he said of the effort to locate and return the abducted teens.
“They need to feel pursued at the operative level and paralyzed to a significant extent at the organizational level ... and that includes their leadership,” Lerner said.
Hamas suspects re-arrested in the ongoing operation will be forced to complete their original sentence, thereby removing any political benefit from the 2011 prisoner deal.
“We’re taking that card away from them,” Lerner said. “They must no longer view kidnapped Israelis as trophies.”
Israel claims the IDF and Shin Bet security operatives foiled 64 cases of attempted abductions since the beginning of 2013.
“It’s a huge operational challenge, since it only takes one abduction to overshadow the 64 previous cases where our security forces were successful,” he said.
In addition to the new counter-abduction strategy, the Israeli government is pursuing aggressive legislative and diplomatic action aimed at fortifying deterrence and defending its ongoing West Bank incursion.
New legislative proposals aim to preclude political pardons of Palestinian security prisoners or severely restrict conditions under which they would be eligible for early release through diplomatic deals.
“We must wipe out the phenomenon of kidnapping civilians and soldiers for purposes of obtaining some type of terrorist-release deal,” said Zeev Elkin, a political ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who now heads the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
Meanwhile, Netanyau and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman are lobbying world leaders to sanction the new Hamas-backed consensus government in Ramallah, which Israel insists is supporting former prisoners and families of convicted terrorists with funding from international donors.
In a document released June 25, Israel provided a detailed accounting of stipends allegedly paid to security prisoners by the Palestine Authority (PA). The document claims the PA is subsidizing 78 “convicted murderers” released in an Israeli prisoner exchange with monthly stipends of nearly $3,500 an grants of up to $25,000.
“In this way the PA is giving a strong financial incentive to terrorism, including through the misuse of fungible foreign financial assistance,” according to the document.
It urged international donors to reconsider financial assistance to Ramallah. “Publicly rewarding convicted murderers ... not only violates basic morality, but ... gives an official stamp of approval to terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. It is a highly persuasive form of incitement to violence and terrorism.”
Liberman plans to press the issue in a planned June 26 in Paris with US Secretary of State John Kerry. ■