Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian youth during clashes in the West Bank city of Hebron
On Thursday the 12th of June, three teenage Israeli settlers aged between 16 and 19 were kidnapped while hiking through the West Bank in Palestine. Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrah and Gilad Shaer were reported missing after being last seen hiking between Jewish settlements in the Hebron area in the West Bank late on Thursday evening.
Since the kidnappings, Israel has detained over 400 Palestinians, including the speaker and several elected members of the Palestinian Legislative Council in ongoing raids across the West Bank. Of that number, 282 are allied to Hamas, the Israeli army says.
Israeli security forces also killed five Palestinians. Many are describing the actions of the Israeli army as "collective punishment". The initial phase of the operation was described by Haaretz as "more a general strike against Hamas". After two weeks, the Israeli government is finally starting to lower the public's expectations of actually finding the missing teenagers. "As time passes, concern for their lives grows,” Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz told reporters near Hebron on Tuesday.
Jewish students pray for two of their friends that were reported missing on Thursday night.
Israeli political figures, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have accused Hamas of being responsible for the kidnappings. The Israeli government have presented no evidence to support these claims yet, but say that they have "unequivocal proof" that they will make it public soon. Hamas have denied involvement and dismissed the accusation as “stupid”.
One of the Palestinian victims in the crack down, 19-year-old Ahmed Sabbaren, was shot in the chest and killed as Israeli soldiers stormed the al-Jalazoun refugee camp north of Ramallah. I spoke to a B’Tselem spokesperson, Sarit Michaeli, who told me more about what happened. “During an Israeli military raid on al-Jalazoun refugee camp, youths confronted the army with stones and clashes ensued," he said. "The army responded by shooting the youth in the chest with a live round. It's quite common for IDF incursions into Palestinian communities to lead to confrontations between youths and the army, that are one of the major causes of death and injury in the West Bank."
Israeli soldiers tie up a Palestinian youth in the West Bank town of Halhul
This escalation of tensions follows Hamas' recent signing of a reconciliation agreement to end a seven year division with the Palestinian Authority and the formation of a new unity government. Many political commentators have claimed that the Israeli government are using the kidnapping as political cover to remove Hamas’ political leadership in the West Bank and drive a wedge between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in advance of the upcoming Palestinian elections.
Writing for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, military and strategic analyst Alex Fishman said the kidnapping had created a "one-time operational opportunity" which Israel would use "to castrate" Hamas and suppress its "strongholds in Palestinian Authority territory to the greatest extent possible."
Right wing Israelis burn the Palestinian flag and shout racist slogans, during an anti-Palestinian protest at the Gush Etzion junction, next to the Palestinian town of Bethlehem
The disappearance of the teenagers has certainly created the political space for a crackdown within Israel. Anger has been spreading. A Hebrew Facebook page entitled “Until the boys are back, every hour we shoot a terrorist” has nearly 20,000 likes with dozens of photos and comments inciting racial hatred and calling for the collective punishment of Palestinian civilians.
Israeli soldiers searching a Palestinian in Hebron
The author and prominent Jewish studies academic Marc H. Ellis summed it up well in an opinion piece for Mondoweiss. “In occupation, the innocent suffer," he wrote. "Can it only be Palestinians who suffer? There is a cost to occupation. Even the powerful have to pay a price. Jews have to pay a price – when they’re occupiers. Missing Jews are a terrible to price to pay. But, then, Israeli jails are filled with 'missing' Palestinians. So return the missing – on all sides. Including the land and ethics and service to one’s own people. When all the missing are returned then we could begin again. A fresh start, honouring all the missing, which, in justice, would be returned.”
But the return of the three teenagers is looking increasingly unlikely as time goes on.
Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri demanded the Palestinian unity government take responsibility and protect Palestinians from Israeli aggression, "The Intifada is the greatest event in the history of the Palestinian people, and it renews itself every time there is an escalation in Israel's aggression," he warned. "Resistance through every channel is the legitimate right of the Palestinian people."
The cost on both sides of the conflict could be set to rise.