Israeli troops search for evidence at site where the bodies of 3 kidnapped youths were found near village of Halhoul. / Getty Images
Israel’s security cabinet was due to convene at 9:30 pm (2:30 New York time) to discuss Israeli responses to the murder of the three teenagers whose bodies were found just before 6 pm in a shallow grave near the village of Halhul, north of Hebron. And a heated debate has already broken out over the proper steps to take.
As usual, politicians on the right are pushing for a maximalist response, while military figures are warning against letting emotions guide policy and urging “focused” and “targeted” responses. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly blamed Hamas for the kidnapping, and pointed to the Fatah-Hamas unity pact concluded last month as contributing to the terrorist act.
Military and security figures have quietly cautioned since fingers began pointing at Hamas that there was no concrete evidence the kidnappers were operating under instructions from Hamas higher-ups. Today for the first time they began speaking not quietly but openly, warning that attacking Hamas as an organization in response to the kidnapping would backfire, fail to deter future terrorism and serve Hamas’s goal of isolating and delegitimizing Israel internationally.
The three boys, Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gil-Ad Shaer, 16, and U.S. citizen Naftali Fraenkel, also 16, were kidnapped at around 10 p.m. June 12 while trying to hitchhike home for the weekend from their West Bank yeshivas. The area, under Israeli military administration, has been the scene of Palestinian violence for decades but has been relatively quiet for the past few years. They were apparently killed shortly after they were taken.
Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein called for Israel to launch a “war on terrorism.” Knesset member Miri Regev, one of the hardest-line members of Likud called for a wave of “targeted eliminations” of Hamas leaders in Gaza.
On the other hand former Mossad director Danny Yatom urged carefully distinguishing between terrorists responsible for the murders and politicians whose ideology may or may not have inspired the murderers.
In a phone interview on Ynet television Yatom urged focused actions to punish and deter future would-be terrorists, including demolishing the family homes of the perpetrators. The Shin Bet and Israel Defense Forces have identified two reputed Hamas activists from Hebron, Marwan Kawasmeh, 29, and Amar Abu-Eisha, 33, as the suspected perpetrators.
Yoni Fighel, a retired colonel in Israel’s military intelligence who now heads the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said it was “irresponsible” to try to pin guilt for the kidnappings on Hamas in Gaza. He also questioned home demolitions, telling Yatom as they both knew, it’s been demonstrated that they “don’t work” as deterrents to further terrorism.
“The conflict with Hamas is a political one,” Fighel told Ynet. “They are working to delegitimize us in the international arena and we need to avoid falling into their trap by taking steps that would serve their goal. It would irresponsible to try and punish Hamas leadership in Gaza for this incident.”
Yatom and several other security figures urged the re-arrest of former prisoners released in the Gilad Shalit deal and trying, within the limits of the law, to find a reason to return them to prison to complete their terms. They warned against expelling West Bank leaders to Gaza, saying that without some proven crime, expulsion would violate Israeli and international law.
Hamas has escalated its rhetoric and to some extent its activity against Israel in recent days. The organization vehemently criticized Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas for his condemnation of the kidnappings and the open cooperation of his security forces in the search for the kidnapped boys. Moreover, Hamas in Gaza fired at least 16 rockets into Israeli territory this morning. It was the first time since Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, which established an informal cease-fire, that Hamas itself was responsible for rocket fire, as opposed to radical groups operating outside Hamas control.
Meanwhile Israeli police internal affairs completed an investigation into the bungled handling of the emergency “I’ve been kidnapped” phone call from one of the kidnapped boys during the kidnapping. Police commissioner Yohanan Danino decided to demote several officers who were on duty that night at Moked 100, Israel’s equivalent of 911, Ynet reported.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).