Taken

08.01.14

Abduction Is Hamas’s Most Terrifying Weapon

The favored tactic of Israel’s enemies in Gaza has been the abduction of soldiers who could be traded later on for Palestinian prisoners. On Friday, Hamas struck again.

The ceasefire that the United States had hoped might end the Gaza war broke open Friday with the abduction of an Israeli officer.

The capture of Hadar Goldin, a second lieutenant in the Israel Defense Force who grew up in the United Kingdom, has restarted a war that has already claimed more than 1,300 lives and leveled city blocks in the densely populated Gaza Strip. It is also for Israel a bitter reminder of its adversary’s favored tactic in recent years: abductions.

The murder of three Israeli teens, kidnapped near Hebron on June 12, was the event that kicked off the current crisis, though Israel did not bombard or invade Gaza until after Hamas fired barrages of rockets.  

Since Israeli forces entered Gaza on a mission to destroy Hamas tunnels, soldiers have found Hamas fighters with large bags, tranquilizer guns, and handcuffs, according to one senior Israeli official who spoke to The Daily Beast earlier this week. “Throughout this operation, Hamas operatives have continuously tried to infiltrate into Israel through the tunnels in order to kidnap Israeli soldiers and civilians,” this official said.

The latest Hamas abduction is already prompting a heavy military response from Israel that seeks to avoid the anguish caused the last time Hamas captured a soldier near Gaza. Gilad Shalit was eventually released in 2011 after five years in captivity in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.

According to Israeli officials, Hamas leaders encouraged abductions as a high-priority tactic for its operatives after the Shalit abduction and trade. One Israeli defense official interviewed this week by The Daily Beast said Hamas has issued guides inside Israeli prisons on how to conduct abductions—and why nabbing a soldier is more preferable than kidnapping a civilian. Spokesmen for Hamas have also said as much, issuing communiqués announcing that abductions would remain a high priority for the group’s Qassam brigade on the West Bank and promising that Shalit would not be the last Israeli soldier Hamas would capture.

Last month, Israel’s Shin Bet—the internal security service leading the manhunt for the two suspects in the June murder and kidnapping—posted a timeline of Hamas’s abduction operations. Shin Bet claimed that Hamas was responsible for 10 of 32 kidnapping attempts on the West Bank since the beginning of 2014. 

Israeli leaders also have squarely put the blame for the kidnapping in June of Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Shaar—the incident that started this war—on Hamas. In his eulogy for the three boys, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised that Hamas would pay, without explicitly saying that Hamas’s leadership in Gaza ordered the kidnapping. (In the weeks that followed, Israeli officials stressed that the incident was carried out by Hamas operatives who may have been acting on their own initiative.)

Indeed, Israel’s initial operations following the incident focused on the Hamas infrastructure on the West Bank. And while tensions were rising between Israel and the Palestinian Authority since the collapse of peace talks in May, P.A. president Mahmoud Abbas himself supported the Israeli operation. In some cases, Palestinian Authority security personnel even cooperated in the Israeli raids on the West Bank.

While Israel has publicly pinned the blame on Hamas, U.S. officials have not gone that far. On June 15, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “Many indications point to Hamas involvement.”

Asked this week whether the White House still held Hamas responsible for the initial incident, Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said, “We would refer you to previous statements on this issue. We do not have any additional information to share at this time.”

A senior U.S. intelligence official said of the June 12 incident: “This wasn’t at random and it was something Hamas had been trying to do. These kids were in the wrong place at the wrong time, but every indication is that Hamas is responsible—even though we haven’t seen evidence that Hamas leaders in Gaza ordered the attack.”

The FBI also is conducting its own investigation into the murder of Fraenkel, who was an Israeli and American citizen.

BuzzFeed this week challenged the official Israeli view in a reported article that quoted an Israeli intelligence officer as saying Netanyahu was too quick to pin the blame on Hamas.

The BuzzFeed piece also quoted relatives of Amer abu Aysha and Marwan Qawasmeh—the two primary suspects Israeli authorities named as responsible for the incident—saying they were not affiliated with Hamas at all.

Two Israeli officials who have been briefed on the investigation and have worked on security in the West Bank disputed that claim, however. One of those officials said Qawasmeh has been arrested before for his activities with Hamas. The fact that the two suspects were able to escape capture so far strongly suggests they had access to safe houses and support that have allowed them to stay hidden. The senior U.S. intelligence official also said this indicated they were not acting alone.

“There is a standing order for kidnapping Israelis from the Hamas leadership, both from Gaza and abroad,” a senior Israeli official told The Daily Beast earlier this week. “They called for kidnappings before, celebrated during, and are calling for more kidnappings after.”

The last part of that statement proved prescient. On Friday, Hamas captured another Israeli soldier during a ceasefire the world was hoping would end the latest war in Gaza.