Another day went by without any word about the whereabouts of the three Israeli teenagers kidnapped by Hamas terrorists last week. While the lack of any evidence that the three are still alive or a ransom demand is deeply troubling, the Israel Defense Forces have conducted extensive searches throughout the West Bank as well as seeking to exact a severe price from the terrorist group. The IDF has arrested scores of Hamas operatives as well as taken into custody 50 of the terrorists freed in the 2012 swap in which the Jewish state traded over 1,000 prisoners for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit.
These sweeps have caused IDF commanders to claim they have inflicted a powerful blow against Hamas’s infrastructure. Re-arresting some of the prisoners traded for Shalit also allows Israel to make a crucial point. Since the object of the abduction of the three boys was to force Israel to release even more terrorists—including some, like those in the Shalit deal, with blood on their hands—this move is an attempt to demonstrate that the kidnapping has backfired. But the boasts from both Israeli politicians and military officials that Hamas is already the loser in this affair may be more intended to boost their citizens’ morale than an objective analysis of the situation. While Hamas may have been dealt a setback that makes it less able to operate in the West Bank, unless the Israelis are prepared to stand their ground on demands for release of the Hamas prisoners, the Islamist group will still be able to claim victory. That’s especially true if the boys aren’t found, if more terrorists walk free as a result of this affair or if, as appears likely, international public opinion begins to swing back to the Palestinians after a week during which the kidnapping engendered more sympathy than usual for the Israelis.
As Raphael Aren wrote in the Times of Israel today, the IDF operations have sought to delegitimize the Fatah-Hamas unity government in the eyes of the world by pointing out the involvement of Hamas in terrorism. But as Israel has learned to its sorrow many times in the past, there are severe limits as to how much leeway the world is prepared to grant it when it comes to self-defense. Though the kidnapping has been roundly, if sometimes belatedly condemned by world leaders, none have drawn the appropriate conclusion from the spectacle of a partner in the Palestinian government conducting terrorist operations. Neither the U.S. nor the European Union has halted aid to the PA in spite of the clear indication that rather than being absorbed by the supposedly more moderate Fatah, Hamas has remained steadfast in its support for terrorism. Just as telling are the calls from Washington and European capitals for Israel to show “restraint” in its efforts to strike back at the terrorists or to find the boys.
While the West will tolerate some Israeli efforts aimed at hindering Hamas operations as well as those focused on recovery of the kidnapping victims, it’s clear that none will endorse anything that would go beyond those limited measures. Though the U.S. is preoccupied with the crisis in Iraq, there is little doubt the Obama administration would lash out at Israel if it expelled senior Hamas members from the West Bank to Gaza. Nor would it stand by if the Israelis put the squeeze on PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to make good on his pledges to help find the boys or in any way punished Hamas’s Fatah partners.
While the Israeli government may think the kidnapping—and the broad support for it among the Palestinian people—ought to inform the world’s view of the conflict, neither the Obama administration nor its European allies share that opinion. From their frame of reference, the kidnapping is just an annoyance, albeit a painful one, that Israelis must put up with. Barring a swift resolution to this incident, it is likely pressure will start to build in the international community for the Israelis to stand down and begin releasing the re-arrested Shalit-swap prisoners. Indeed, already voices are being raised claiming that Israel is engaging in “collective punishment” against the Palestinians in its anti-Hamas campaign. While the charge is specious, the willingness to turn the tables on the Israelis and to treat Hamas and its supporters as the victims reflects the prejudicial atmosphere in which the Jewish state must operate.
Contrary to the expectations of some in Israel, the #bringbackourboys hashtag social media campaign hasn’t really caught fire outside of the Jewish community. Nor has the rival #threeshalits hashtag—a phrase that demonstrates the broad support for terrorism among Palestinians—influenced either the U.S. or international public opinion to cause them to question their belief that the Israelis are the real obstacle to peace. By raising the ante with Israel in this manner, Hamas has shown the Palestinians that they are the true standard-bearers in the ongoing conflict with the Jews. Unless the IDF can find the boys and the Netanyahu government sticks to its guns in the months ahead on prisoner releases, Hamas will be able claim victory despite the blows they have absorbed.