from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Shaping Israel’s Response to the Killing of the Yeshiva Students

June 30, 2014

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The terrible news today confirming the death of three Israeli Yeshiva students abducted eighteen days ago in the West Bank forces Israeli and Palestinian leaders to confront some very difficult decisions. The discovery of the students’ bodies and the confirmation of their killing will doubtless lead to a strong Israeli military response. Even dovish President Shimon Peres declared that Israel’s retribution would be harsh. But just what that means will be shaped to some extent by the way Palestinian leaders react to today’s news. Visiting Israel and the West Bank last week, I heard Israeli and Palestinians of all stripes largely anticipate a bad ending to the kidnapping saga. Yet nobody could clearly envisage what would happen next.

What is clear now is that action is imminent. At the onset of the emergency Israeli cabinet meeting taking place as of this writing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared: “Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay" for the abduction and killing of the three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank.

Israel’s Actions So Far. After Israel discovered that the three students had been abducted June 12, Netanyahu launched the largest IDF military operation in the West Bank in over a decade. Not since then-IDF chief of staff Boogie Ya’alon—now defense minister—undertook the military crackdown that brought about an end to the second intifada has Israel acted with such force in the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. These recent IDF actions resulted in the incarceration of over 400 Hamas suspects, the capture of Hamas’s weapons caches, and ultimately the discovery today of the three dead Israeli students.

But Israel decided last week to reel in these operations somewhat, even before the students were discovered, after the death of some half-dozen Palestinian civilians started to produce serious popular West Bank outrage. Palestinian protesters in Ramallah, among other West Bank locations, turned their ire not at the Israelis, but at their own Palestinian security forces, who they accused of collaborating with Israel’s security services. That Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas had denounced the kidnapping during a visit to Saudi Arabia, while Netanyahu delayed in acknowledging Abbas’s words and refusing to empathize with the loss of Palestinian lives, led PA officials to feel extremely vulnerable politically. Not only did they fear that Netanyahu was out to free the students, but they worried that Israel was trying to punish Abbas for having formed a unity agreement with Hamas last month. Israeli officials recognized the precariousness of the Palestinian Authority’s position and concluded that its survival was an Israeli interest.

Now, with the death of the kidnapped students, Israeli must make some difficult choices. To take further military action in the West Bank could put further strain on the Palestinian Authority and its security forces who Israeli officials quietly acknowledge have been extremely cooperative to date. Having blamed Hamas for the kidnapping, Israel’s more logical target would be Hamas’s leadership in Gaza. Already, the Israeli-Gazan front has been heating up over the past few weeks, with over a dozen Hamas solvos launched into Israel earlier today alone. Yet a serious ground operation in Gaza would be politically risky and militarily dangerous for Israeli forces. Significant air operations are more likely. But they could lead Hamas to abrogate its periodically violated truce with Israel and unleash rockets that could target Israel’s major population centers.

Suspending the Unity Agreement? Abbas now faces widespread calls from Israel and abroad to abrogate the unity pact his Fatah party reached with Hamas last April. That agreement led to the formation of a technocratic government that was widely recognized internationally, including by the United States. Yet with today’s news, even Israeli leaders on the left are calling on Abbas to disassociate itself from Hamas and the unity agreement. Such a move would put Abbas firmly on Israel’s side, and could help salve badly strained Israeli-Palestinian relations. Israel would have to recognize the political benefits of such a move, and may be convinced to temper its military actions so as not strain Abbas’s standing before his people.

For Abbas to abrogate the understanding with Hamas would be justified, courageous, and politically difficult. Fatah-Hamas unity is widely popular with the Palestinians across the political spectrum, particularly as it is seen as the only serious means for reuniting the West Bank and Gaza politically and economically. To break the agreement now would push such reunification further away. Moreover, for Abbas to dissolve the unity government would render unlikely the raison d’etre for the accord: the holding of Palestinian national and legislative elections. Such elections provided Abbas the prospect of renewed legitimacy after nearly a decade without functioning Palestinian political institutions or electoral politics. The end of the unity agreement and new elections also robs the 79-year old Abbas of a potential legacy item and exit strategy in the wake of Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed peace efforts.

Hamas’s Response. The only other party that could possibly stave off an intensive Israeli response right now is Hamas itself, which has never claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. Hamas’s public position so far has been vague and ambiguous, despite the strong suggestions by Israel and the United States that the terrorist group was responsible for the kidnapping. Initially, Hamas praised the kidnappings and praised the “heroes” who carried them out. Over time, however, Hamas has rejected the charges that it had directed the operation from Gaza. Following the discovery of the dead students, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri accused Israel of blaming Hamas to prepare the way for military action. Only a clear and firm Hamas condemnation of the kidnapping and deaths could serve to stave off Israel’s ire and protect the unity agreement with Fatah from further Israeli and international opprobrium. Such a Hamas move is highly unlikely however.

Israel, the PA, and Hamas are now at a critical juncture. Strong Israeli military operations against Hamas, which it deems responsible for the deaths of the three students, now seems inevitable. Yet the way in which Israel proceeds will no doubt be shaped by actions of other players, particularly Palestinian president Abbas.