WATCH: Israel increases its efforts as the search for the missing teens continues
JERUSALEM – Israel’s prime minister on Tuesday urged the international community to demand the Western-backed Palestinian president break off ties with the militant Hamas group over the abduction of three Israeli teens, the latest sign that Israel’s massive five-day-old search in the West Bank has broader objectives than finding the missing.
Israel said it also wants to destroy the Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank and apparently hopes to reclaim international support after the latest failure of U.S.-led peace efforts.
Israel has launched its most significant military ground operation in more than five years since the three Jewish seminary students went missing last Thursday at a West Bank hitchhiking junction.
Troops have arrested more than 200 Palestinians, most of them Hamas activists, blocked roads and searched homes.
There has been no sign of life from the missing or demands issued by purported kidnappers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has alleged that Hamas was behind the abductions, but has offered no proof, while the Islamic militant group has praised the deed, but not claimed responsibility.
The abductions, accompanied by wall-to-wall Israeli media coverage and prayer vigils, have created unexpected diplomatic openings for Netanyahu, who only last week had found himself increasingly isolated in the international arena.
At the time, the United States and Europe were ignoring Netanyahu’s appeals to shun the Palestinian unity government, a 17-member Cabinet of technocrats largely loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas, but backed by Hamas.
The Israeli leader had also lost international goodwill after the latest failure of talks on Palestinian statehood, with Israel held partially responsible because of its ongoing settlement expansion on occupied lands.
Since the kidnappings, Israel has been able to crack down on Hamas in the West Bank — in the context of the search for the missing teens — without an international outcry or drawing allegations that it is provoking unnecessary confrontations with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu has also used the episode to try to discredit the Palestinian unity government.
The international community “has to condemn Hamas for its terrorist activities and … must call on President Abbas to end his pact with Hamas,” Netanyahu said in a meeting with Mideast envoy Tony Blair.
“Anybody who supports peace must tell the Palestinian Authority that they cannot build a government that is backed by the kidnappers of children and the murderers of innocents,” he said.
Abbas, meanwhile, is finding himself increasingly boxed in.
Reconciliation with Hamas had provided him with an alternate strategy after it became clear in April that there is not enough common ground between him and Netanyahu to reach a peace deal.
The unity government also was to give Abbas a foothold in the Gaza Strip, the territory Hamas had seized in 2007 and where it remains the de facto power.
Even before the abductions, reconciliation efforts were off to a bumpy start, with key issues unresolved.
However, it would be exceedingly difficult for Abbas to walk away from the unity deal in response to the kidnappings. That would go against Palestinian public opinion shaped by widespread speculation that the purported kidnappers were somehow trying to press for the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Abbas has condemned the kidnappings.
Abbas’ next move will depend on whether Hamas was in fact involved, as Israel claims, said Hana Amireh, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who attended a meeting chaired by Abbas over the weekend.
“If it is true that Hamas is behind this abduction, then this is a position we don’t understand,” he said. He stopped short of saying that even then, Abbas would dismantle the alliance.
Ali Barake, a Hamas representative in Lebanon, said Tuesday that “we do not have any information on the kidnapping.”
Netanyahu, meanwhile, has strongly signalled that he is upset over what, in Israel’s eyes, has been a tepid international response to the kidnapping. He has said he “expects” strong international condemnations, while complaining about the uproar over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank or east Jerusalem.
On Tuesday, five days after the crisis erupted, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton condemned the abductions “in the strongest terms” and called for the release of the teens. The U.S. and other allies have also spoken out against the kidnappings, though they have stopped short of explicitly blaming Hamas. The West has shown no signs of ending its readiness to work with the new Palestinian government.
Tamir Sheafer, an expert in political communication at the Hebrew University, said the international response was “definitely not as strong” as Israel had hoped.
He said Israel’s leadership may have had unrealistic expectations, especially since it is not certain that Hamas was involved. He also noted that other crises, such as the heavy fighting in Iraq, are attracting most of the world’s attention.
But he also said Israel’s own policies may be to blame. He said the Israeli government expects international support in times of crisis, but has rebuffed international demands when it comes to ending its longtime occupation of the West Bank and reaching peace with the Palestinians.
Ben Caspit, a liberal newspaper columnist in the Maariv daily, this week questioned the wisdom of continuing to settle the West Bank and allowing teenagers to hitchhike in the territory late at night.
“There are other people who think that to choose to live in the territories among millions of Palestinians who regard you as an occupier and who yearn for you to die an agonizing death is a form of irresponsibility,” he wrote. “No, we are not blaming the boys, since they acted in keeping with the accepted norm. We were only wondering about that accepted norm.”
AP correspondents Yousur Alhlou in Jerusalem and Maeva Bambuck in Beirut contributed to this report.
© The Canadian Press, 2014