The search for three Israeli teen settlers who went missing near the Palestinian city of Hebron last week has prompted an Israeli military escalation in the occupied West Bank not seen since the days of the second intifada.
Thousands of Israeli soldiers have joined the search for the missing boys, whom Israeli authorities maintain have been kidnapped by Hamas, although they have not yet provided any evidence to support that.
The operation — which the IDF dubbed operation "Brother's Keeper" — extended far beyond the settlement of Gush Etzion, where the teens were last seen, and involved raids on homes and refugee camps throughout the West Bank — from Ramallah to Nablus.
So far, at least 240 people were arrested as part of the campaign, according to Israeli officials, — a clear sign, to many Palestinians, that this is not just about finding the missing boys.
Among the arrested are several Palestinian politicians, many affiliated with Hamas, and 53 former prisoners who had been released in 2011 as part of a prisoner exchange deal that swapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit — held by Hamas for five years — for 1,027 prisoners of Israel. A spokesperson for the IDF told VICE News that they were rearrested for "violating the terms of their release."
Israel considers Hamas a terrorist organization and has strongly condemned a recent unity deal between the group and Fatah, its long term political rival.
The videos below, shared by the IDF show images of the military operation captured by a Skylark drone, and of some of the troops involved in the operation.
“Many think that Israel is using this as an excuse to punish the Palestinians for going to international institutions,” Issa Amro, a Hebron-based Palestinian activist told VICE News, blaming the failed peace process for the alleged kidnapping. “I believe Benjamin Netanyahu is responsible for these kidnappings regardless of who did it. He’s the one who closed all the doors for the peace process, he’s the one who’s getting settlers to attack Palestinians without accountability, and with full impunity.”
He was not alone in thinking that — and Israeli authorities’ promise that they would respond to the teens’ disappearance with a crackdown on Hamas supporters in the West Bank only confirmed many Palestinians’ claim that the manhunt served a larger purpose than to find the boys.
“It’s quite clear, when you consider the amount and scale of arrests, that there is something larger going on,” Gavan Kelly, advocacy coordinator at Addameer, a Palestinian prisoner support and human rights association based in Ramallah, told VICE News. “Israel has stumbled upon a golden opportunity.”
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu himself made no secret that authorities planned for a long-term, large-scale search.
"We are in the middle of a complex operation,” he said on Monday. “We need to be prepared for the fact that it may take more time…It is a serious incident and will have grave consequences."
An unnamed Israeli army commander reportedly said that the ongoing West Bank raids would be larger than than Operation “Defensive Shield” — a military operation in Jenin, in 2002, which killed hundreds of Palestinians during the second intifada.
"This is the most significant ground operation since Cast Lead," a spokesperson for the IDF told VICE News, referring to the three-week bombing and ground invasion of Gaza launched in December 2008. "There are currently nine brigades, special forces, intelligence, ISA and the Israeli police force involved in the combined effort to locate the three missing boys and combating the Hamas terrorist organization that is responsible for this attack."
While the death toll for the Jenin operation is disputed — with the UN estimating 497 Palestinian casualties — Defensive Shield was the largest Israeli operation in the West Bank since the 1967 war that marked the beginning of the territory’s ongoing occupation.
"Israel is conducting the worst form of collective punishment since 2002," Mustafa Barghouthi, a leading Palestinian figure and a member of the PLO's central council, said in a statement. "The attacks that are taking place are not against Hamas only. They are attacking all Palestinians and even arresting members of the PA security forces.”
Since the search for the missing boys started, a 20-year-old Palestinian was killed during a raid on the Jalazoun refugee camp, near Ramallah. The videos below, shared by Palestinian media, show the aftermath of that raid and the young victim, Ahmed Arafat Abbaran.
In addition to its massive manhunt, the Israeli military launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #BringBackOurBoys — a twist on the viral campaign for the release of almost 300 Nigerian schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram. The IDF also invited Twitter users to share their support for the teens using their names #EyalGiladNaftali and the hashtag #LifeUnderTerror.
Needless to say, that took a different turn pretty quickly, with Palestinians tweeting about their life under terror, and sharing stories about the hundreds of Palestinian teens regularly detained by Israeli authorities.
The #BringBackOurBoys hashtag took off over the last few days, according to data by social analytics company Brandwatch — with many using it to talk about the missing boys and many to talk about Palestinian youth.
"Social media is about the online discussion, the fact that Palestinians are using the same hashtag just emphasizes the virality of the issue and their need to address the issue of the abducted teens," the IDF spokesperson said. "The IDF will continue to participate in that conversation, in order to share the developments, present the reality and address the issues even if they are sometimes controversial."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi