Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images

Prelude to war: Political crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank

In aftermath of hitchhikers’ abduction, Israel laid groundwork for escalation with Gaza by rounding up group’s members

After the kidnapping last month of three Israeli teens in the West Bank, hundreds of Palestinians — mostly Hamas members — were arrested across cities and towns in the occupied territory. Though it never provided specific evidence, Israel accused the Palestinian Islamist group, which has kidnapped Israelis in the past.

During an incursion by thousands of Israeli troops as part of Operation Brother’s Keeper, senior political leaders, clerics, teachers and fighters were detained in the cities of Hebron, Nablus and Bethlehem. IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said early on that one of the main goals was to “crack down on Hamas as hard as possible and move forward.” Palestinians and Israeli rights group B’Tselem described the effort as collective punishment.

Notable detainees included former speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council Aziz Dweik, Hamas co-founder Hassan Yousef, legislators from Bethlehem Khalid Tafish and Anwar Zaboun, and the West Bank manager of Hamas-run Al-Aqsa TV.

Referring to the process as “cleaning house,” Israel seemed intent on destroying Hamas’ operational capability in the West Bank, and forcing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party, which recently entered into a political unity agreement with the group, to break the arrangement.

During the West Bank sweeps, the Palestinian Authority said more than 566 people were detained, with media reports indicating up to 10 Palestinians killed. Israel cited 381 arrested, of whom 282 reportedly belong to Hamas.

A gag order preventing Israeli media from reporting details of the teens' abduction provoked allegations that the state knew the fate of the already-murdered missing teens, and was exploiting their kidnapping to launch incursions into Area A of the Palestinian territory — for which Israel is generally expected to ask the PA’s approval — so that it could prolong its anti-Hamas campaign, and demolish hopes for a viable Palestinian government.

Israeli forces searched some 2,000 buildings, including 64 Hamas institutions. Weapons were taken from some of the facilities, and offices belonging to the group’s social organization, Dawa, were raided, with computers and documents seized or destroyed by Israeli security forces. Birzeit University’s student union was stormed in a search for Hamas promotional material. Bethlehem’s largest Islamic charity was ransacked. Al-Quds University law faculty was raided, and some East Jerusalem charities were also shuttered.

Toward Protective Edge

The rise in West Bank tensions following the triple-murder — stoked by right-wing Israeli politicians, arguably including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — culminated in deadly clashes, the murder-kidnapping of Mohammad Abu Khdeir, and the beating of his cousin Tariq.

Despite the Israeli government’s explicit blaming and targeting of Hamas, the group’s political leader Khaled Meshal denied responsibility and called for calm. However, Sami Abu Zuhri, the Hamas spokesman in Gaza, refused to confirm or reject accusations of its involvement. Gaza fighters began launching rockets into Israel, partially in protest of the West Bank crackdown and in response to the incidents in Jerusalem.

Israel identified the main suspects as Hamas members Marwan Qawasmeh, 29, and Amar Abu-Isa, 32. Although they remain at large, Israeli authorities have taken action against them by ordering the demolition of their family homes.

Even if Hamas-linked individuals carried out the attack, the group’s leadership said it had not sanctioned it. However, the Qawasmeh clan, from which the suspects hail, is reportedly known for acting counter to the movement’s directives, and for violating past ceasefire agreements endorsed by the top leadership.

Many of the Palestinians arrested during the West Bank crackdown had been freed as part of the deal to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and the mass roundup was the first step of a military confrontation with Hamas that culminated this week in Operation Protective Edge — which saw deadly air strikes bombard the Gaza Strip and increasingly numerous rocket attacks by Hamas and other groups.

Hamas has demanded its re-arrested prisoners be freed before signing a ceasefire based on the November 2012 cessation of hostilities. The group also wants Egypt to re-open the Rafah crossing, and for the Palestinian Authority (PA) to release salaries for former Hamas government employees in Gaza. Hamas is cash-strapped and politically vulnerable, as the Israeli-led blockade continues and tunnel trade is severely stifled because Egypt has destroyed the vast majority of the 1,200 tunnels through which goods had been traveling to Gaza. Used for everything from cement and medicines to fuel, weapons and people, Hamas was earning some $200 million annually from taxing the tunnel trade.

Meanwhile, as the military tit-for-tat increased, Mousa Abu Marzook, the deputy Hamas politburo chief, has accused Abbas of not taking responsibility for Gaza: "Even if we give him Gaza, he will not take it." The remark, among others, highlighted the fragility of the Palestinian unity government, which was formed after nine months of U.S. sponsored peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians failed.

Israel, for its part, continues to refuse any obligation to deal openly with the new technocratic, consensus cabinet, despite statements from Abbas that it would honor previous peace deals signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization, and continue to renounce violence.

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