June 14, 2014
Nearly 24 hours after contact was lost with three missing yeshiva students in the West Bank, little is known about the incident – and some of the details are still under a gag order. Security forces apparently still do not understand exactly what happened, or who is responsible for what is now being described as a terrorist kidnapping. One thing should be stated with care: As the hours go by, the chances of this affair ending well are diminishing.
This assessment is based on past experiences. In most kidnappings in the West Bank over the past 15 years, the kidnappers did not let the hostages live.
The operational circumstances in the West Bank are completely different than in the Gaza Strip: In Gaza, Hamas managed to keep Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit alive for more than five years without Israel determining his whereabouts or preparing a successful rescue plan. Without any other options, Israel was forced to pay an exaggerated price and release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit.
The reality is different in the West Bank – and that’s why the security forces are so worried. The IDF can reach almost any place in the West Bank, and the Shin Bet operates an intricate network of human intelligence and surveillance on the ground. Palestinian security forces also operate in many places, and have –more than once – thwarted planned kidnappings and given relevant information to the Shin Bet.
The terrorists know this. That is why, in most cases, they murder their hostages a short time after kidnapping them; they assume a live hostage leaves behind a greater “intelligence footprint” than a discarded body. A hostage needs to be guarded, fed, held and hidden – all actions that leave traces behind and can send security forces running to the rescue.
The week of Gilad Shalit’s kidnapping, in June 2006, a young Israeli named Eliyahu Asheri was kidnapped in the West Bank. His kidnappers murdered him on the spot, for the very reasons listed above. When soldier Tomer Hazan was kidnapped last year, he was murdered within hours. The last Israeli who was freed after being held in the West Bank was taxi driver Eliyahu Goral. He was rescued in 2003 by commando forces, after his captors held amateurish negotiations with the Shin Bet.
Kidnapping three people at once is highly unusual. If this wasn’t a crime of opportunity, it is likely that the cell is relatively well-organized and well-prepared. The question that should be asked in such a case is how such an incident occurs under the Shin Bet’s radar, and whether this attests to deteriorating coordination with the Palestinians on security matters, in the wake of the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation and the establishment of a technocratic government earlier this month. The three yeshiva students were last seen in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc south of Jerusalem. Nearby, a terror cell which has yet to be apprehended is operating in the Hebron area; these are the terrorists who murdered policeman Baruch Mizrachi on Seder eve this year near Hebron. That attack pointed to a relatively high skill level, and to this day there is still no lead in the investigation.
Assuming this incident is indeed a kidnapping, it took place against the backdrop of two major developments: The rift between Israel and the Palestinian Authority following the failure of the U.S. peace initiative, and the hunger strike launched by Palestinian prisoners protesting Israel’s administrative arrest policy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has already begun to leverage the suspected attack against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and the Prime Minister’s Office has stated that the Palestinian Authority is responsible for the fate of the missing teens. Abbas is in a difficult situation: Israel and the U.S. will demand he take action, but the question of a prisoner release is at the heart of the Palestinian consensus, and has become an even greater point of discussion following the prisoners’ strike. In the past two days, senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials have declared that kidnapping soldiers and settlers is the only way to bring about the release of prisoners.
Two more points worth making: First off, many of the kidnappings in the Palestinian territories over the past few decades have taken place at hitchhiking spots. Despite warnings by the IDF, police and settler leaders, young Israelis continue to hitchhike, including at night and in the territories, as anyone who drives on these roads knows.
Second, following initial reports of the teens’ disappearance in the early morning, an extraordinarily large wave of rumors washed over Israel – fueled by social media. The gag order imposed by the Shin Bet through the early afternoon was based on intelligence, but it seems it is no longer warranted. When the Palestinian media publishes the names and pictures of missing people, a gag order in Israel doesn’t serve anyone – it only adds to the panic and confusion.