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Israel expands crackdown on Islamist Hamas


By Linda Gradstein

The Media Line

Almost a week after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped, presumably by the Islamist Hamas movement, Israel has expanded its crackdown to include “anything green” as one Israeli army officer referred to the traditional Hamas color. Some 300 Palestinians affiliated with Hamas have been arrested in the past week, including several Palestinian parliamentarians and more than 50 prisoners who had been released in a prisoner exchange for a captured Israeli soldier in 2011.

Israeli officials say that their main goal is to find the teenagers, who they believe are still in Judea and Samaria.

“We don’t have any concrete information that they are alive and we don’t have any concrete information that they’re not alive” Israeli army spokesman Peter Lerner told The Media Line. “Right now we’re proceeding on the assumption that the boys are alive and that they are being held in the West Bank.”

Lerner said a total of nine brigades (three more than usual) have searched more than 800 different locations throughout Judea and Samaria. They have found hundreds of rifles and machine guns, but have yet to find out where the three Israelis are being held.

Lerner said a secondary goal of the widespread army operation is to “take a toll on Hamas.”

“We are targeting all levels of the organization, from the tactical to the operational to the institutional to the leadership,” he said.

Lerner said that in the past year and a half, there had been 64 kidnapping attempts similar to the one that succeeded last week, and has riveted Israeli society. He said that Israel is convinced that Hamas is behind the kidnapping, although there have been no claims of responsibility and no demands presented.

Palestinians warn that Israel’s crackdown on Hamas could backfire.

“It seems they are taking advantage of this incident and trying to pursue several different agendas,” Ghassan al-Khatib, a former Palestinian government spokesman told The Media Line. “They want to crack down on Hamas, expand settlements in the West Bank, and destroy the unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah.”

That unity agreement, signed last month, is meant to pave the way for Palestinian elections. Israel has sharply criticized that agreement, saying that Fatah, which is headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has chosen Hamas over peace with Israel.

Abbas has come out sharply against the kidnapping, and said he will continue security coordination with Israel. The United States has asked both sides to “exercise restraint” during what the State Department spokesman called “an incredibly sensitive and difficult circumstance on the ground.”

Ghassan Al-Khatib said that Israeli troops raided Bir Zeit University, where he is a professor, in the middle of the night, confiscating computers and “anything green,” including Palestinian and Hamas flags, Khatib said. The university recently held elections for the student council so there were flags and other brochures taken.

“The Israeli actions will clearly reduce the Hamas profile, both political and operational, in the West Bank,” Joseph Alpher, a political analyst and former Mossad intelligence official told The Media Line. “But if there’s a broader goal of separating Hamas and Fatah it’s not clear if it will succeed.”

Alpher said it is not possible to know if the teenagers are alive or not.

“It is possible that something went wrong at the beginning of the kidnapping and they were killed,” he said. “But it is also possible that the full court Israeli press is preventing the captors from raising their head and making demands for a prisoner exchange. Hamas abducts Israelis not to kill them but to trade them for prisoners.”

There are some 5000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails today. In 2011 Israel traded 1027 Hamas prisoners in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held in Gaza for more than five years.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Mahmoud Abbas this week – the first time the two men have spoken directly in over a year. But Israel’s response to Abbas’s comments in Saudi Arabia was lukewarm, with Israeli officials saying that actions are more important than words.

Some say that once the incident is resolved, especially if the boys are found alive with the help of the Palestinian security forces, it could be an opportunity to renew peace talks, which failed after nine months of intensive effort by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

“Hamas was losing strength everywhere, especially in Gaza,” Ghassan Khatib said. “But our polls show that a systematic decline in support for violence. Most Palestinians are afraid of a possible return to violence and losing the security of law and order.”


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