Majdi Mohammed/AP

Israel vows to avenge slain teens, but its leaders know escalation risks

Analysis: Hamas is focus of Israeli retaliation, but analysts say Netanyahu will seek to avoid a sustained confrontation

“Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay,” Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday after the bodies of three Israeli teenagers abducted on June 12 were found near Hebron. But acting on that vow presents the Israeli leader with an increasingly complex set of challenges.

Within hours of Netanyahu’s emergency Cabinet meeting, Israeli planes conducted airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, and rockets flew into Israeli territory. The Hebron-area homes of two suspects named by Israel in the case were also reportedly destroyed by the Israeli military in an act of reprisal Monday, although the two men remain on the run. Israel has already mounted the largest crackdown in the occupied West Bank in a decade during the weeks since the young men were abducted — five Palestinians have been killed, and more than 500 have been arrested — but pressure is mounting on Netanyahu, even from within his ruling coalition, to do more.

“The government of Israel must declare a war to the death on Hamas,” Deputy Minister Tzipi Hotovely told the newspaper Haaretz. And Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon called for an all-out military assault on Hamas, aiming for the group’s “total” destruction.

After the boys went missing, Israel immediately blamed Hamas — which remains popular in the flash point West Bank city of Hebron and the surrounding area —although it provided no evidence to back that claim. Hamas, for its part, has neither confirmed nor fully denied involvement in the kidnapping but has rejected Israeli accusations holding the movement’s leadership responsible.  

“Only the Israeli version of the events has been published,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri on Monday. “We reject all Israeli allegations and threats against us.”

By some Israeli media accounts, the confusion may derive from reports suggesting that one of the suspects named by Israel in the kidnapping is part of a rogue element of Hamas in the Hebron area, which is alleged to have taken provocative actions in defiance of the movement’s leadership — and for which Israel has held Hamas responsible.

Hamas has certainly been the target of Israel’s Operation Brother’s Keeper, launched after the abductions. The Israelis have made clear the campaign’s goal was not simply to find the missing teens but also to deal Hamas a harsh blow and undermine Fatah’s reconciliation agreement with Hamas signed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

All-out war on Hamas is easier said than done, however. Hamas is deeply rooted in Palestinian society, both in Gaza and the West Bank, and the last time Israel went to war in the hope of destroying the organization — the 2008 pummeling of Gaza it called Operation Cast Lead — more than 1,000 Palestinians, many of them civilians, were killed. Not only did Hamas survive intact, but the civilian casualties and ongoing blockade of Gaza drew international criticism and hurt Israel’s diplomatic standing.

Since the cease-fire brokered by Egypt to end Israel’s 2012 operation in Gaza, Israel effectively relies on Hamas to restrain even more radical groups from firing rockets at Israel from the territory.

“The Netanyahu government must now navigate between the public’s intense fury over the boys’ murders, the pressure by the right wing within the government for a harsh response and the concern that a violent, escalating confrontation with Hamas will ensue, mainly in the Gaza Strip,” wrote Israeli security analyst Amos Harel late Monday.

“The prime minister will have to undertake a series of responses to convince public opinion that he, as he claimed in a past election campaign, is still strong against Hamas — without being drawn into a long military entanglement … The government’s declared purpose is to deter the Palestinians, but its practical goal is more to pacify Israelis. Harsh actions are liable to restrain the fury coming from the home front.” 

Israeli security chiefs fear a wave of violence by Israeli settlers and their sympathizers against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and in Israel, triggering a wider escalation, Harel said. And he argued that a full-blown confrontation with Hamas in Gaza — which could be sparked by the assassination of any of the movement’s top leaders — could spark a sustained and damaging confrontation in Gaza that could see rockets landing in Tel Aviv.

The challenge of going after Hamas in the West Bank is even more complicated because there Israel relies on the security forces of the Palestinian Authority as its first line of defense of the status quo.

Abbas has maintained the high level of security cooperation with Israel that he has described as “sacred” throughout the kidnapping saga. But the Israelis have also demanded more: They want Abbas to renounce his unity agreement with Hamas.

The Fatah-Hamas reconciliation coincided with the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to revive the moribund peace process — a setback for which U.S. officials leveled rare criticism of Israel’s settlement policy, with a warning by Kerry that Israel risked being isolated as an “apartheid” state. Now the kidnapping has changed the conversation, pressing Abbas to abrogate the reconciliation agreement and fully back an Israeli crackdown that has antagonized his people — but with little prospect on the horizon of achieving a negotiated end to the occupation.

“The [security] campaign’s key aims, which Israeli leaders have hardly been coy about, are to deal a significant blow to Hamas in the West Bank, and more importantly to undermine the recent Palestinian reconciliation agreement to the point where it begins to unravel,” wrote Palestinian analyst Mouin Rabbani. “It additionally hopes to even further weaken Mahmoud Abbas so that he becomes more pliable, dependent and responsive to its demands when bilateral negotiations are resumed or Israel implements unilateral measures in the West Bank.”

But the Palestinian Authority’s support of the Israeli crackdown has made its security forces the target of Palestinian street protests.

On the night of June 21, the Israeli military entered Ramallah — the Palestinian Authority’s de facto capital and a city typically immune from large-scale military action. Soon Palestinian youths were throwing stones at Israeli jeeps in the commercial center of the city, and the Israelis were firing live ammunition. Angry at the role of the PA’s security forces, some of those protesters soon attacked the PA police station,and by the end of the night, angry young Palestinians were being fired on by both Israeli soldiers and Palestinian policemen.

Israel scaled back its operation after that night; Israeli reports say military chiefs had warned the government to ease off on actions that threatened the stability of the PA, a key Israeli security asset. As Israeli analyst Noam Sheizaf wrote last week, “The PA was facing a legitimacy crisis even before the abduction crisis, with more and more Palestinians — especially young activists — viewing it as a corrupt regime whose security collaboration with Israel has made it part of the infrastructure of the occupation rather than a vessel for liberation … Netanyahu’s greatest achievement and the secret to his long survival in power is the relative calm that Israelis have enjoyed during his tenure — a calm ensured largely by the PA, whose huge security budget is dedicated to protecting Israelis rather than Palestinians.”

That’s why Harel and other Israeli analysts believe Netanyahu in the coming days will both escalate and seek to contain the confrontation with Hamas. But modulating a level of escalation to prevent its running out of control could prove exceedingly difficult in an increasingly volatile regional context. 

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