As time goes by – more than 48 hours have passed – the chances of finding the three missing yeshiva students, who were probably kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank on Thursday, grow slim. And accordingly, the fears whether they are alive at all are more acute. The efforts to trace them are now focusing on intelligence.
The Shin Bet (Israel’s Security Agency) and the military’s intelligence agency are utilizing all possible means to find the missing students, mainly HUMINT, running agents and collaborators, but also SIGINT, the interception of communications (phones, faxes, emails and social networks).
This is mostly the hour of the Shin Bet’s low-ranking intelligence officers. Each of these officers are responsible for villages and neighborhoods in the West Bank, and are supposed to know suspicious changes – who was missing at prayers at the mosques, who disappeared for days from his family, who bought cars or purchased clothes or had unusual sick days before the abduction.
The result of forensic investigation points out that the burnt car found already during the early hours on Friday was indeed linked or used for the operation and can enhance the investigation further.
The main question security forces don’t know the answer to is: are the students dead or alive? A few scenarios about their location and the identity of their kidnappers can be deduced from this enigmatic question.
1. If they are alive, they may have been smuggled in the first confusing hours to a safe shelter in Gaza, or even better (from the kidnappers’ perspective), to Sinai or Jordan. But the prevailing assumption, as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Saturday, is that it is more likely that they are being held in the West Bank.
2. This means they are in a safe house in the West Bank.
3. Or they are somewhere else in the West Bank but in a temporary shelter.
Never before in the bloody history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were three Israelis kidnapped in a single terrorist attack. It is also not clear whether the abduction was an operation of well-organized terror network or of a semi-spontaneous initiative, as the was the nature of most of the terror attacks in the West Bank in the last year. So far, most indicators point to a well-planned and professionally- executed operation.
The kidnappers likely persuaded or forced the students who were hitchhiking to get into their car. This scenario is quite probable as past precedents have shown that previous kidnappers posed as Israelis, and these abductors probably spoke fluent Hebrew with no accent and wore typical Israeli clothes (maybe even typical of Orthodox Jews). An unknown Salafist organization from Hebron took responsibility for the operation.
But the announcement may well be just a decoy, a kind of disinformation created in order to conceal the true identity of those who are behind the attack. Therefore, it should be regarded with suspicion. For now, the prime suspects are Hamas and the Islamic Jihad who have both in recent years attempted to launch kidnapping operations, which have been foiled.
The prime minister hinted to that direction though he did not name the “terrorist organization,” which is behind the event. But the timing of this incident is bad for Hamas.
Just a few weeks ago the group joined a national unity government led by PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Claiming responsibility for the kidnapping would greatly embarrass Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.
If the students are alive and the kidnappers abducted them, to release their comrades in Israeli jails it is expected that eventually, those who truly initiated and carried out the kidnappings will step out into the open by publishing a statement taking responsibility for the crime and presenting their demands.
Israeli security sources are confident the operation is aimed at bargaining with Israel to release Palestinian terrorists from Israeli jails. For the past 30 years, kidnapping soldiers and civilians has proven to be the most effective tool for Palestinians. Subsequent Israeli governments promised to never surrender to terrorism and caved in time after time, releasing thousands of terrorists in the process (many of them who had been serving life sentences for murder).
Three years ago, Israel was forced to free more than 1,000 terrorists in exchange for the release of soldier Gilad Schalit, who was kidnapped near Gaza by Hamas. As a result of the public outcry that ensued regarding the heavy price paid by Israel, the government set up a special committee to come up with recommendations for similar scenarios in the future.
In the end, the committee recommended Israel draw “red lines” so as to minimize the cost of prisoner swaps. Israeli bodies would be exchanged for Palestinian bodies and not living terrorists, for each soldier kidnapped, Israel would release just a handful of terrorists and not dozens.
But Netanyahu’s cabinet never adopted the recommendations out of fear that its negotiating power and maneuvering space would be limited in the future.
It seems that the moment of truth has arrived. The cabinet prefers a military operation to free the kidnapped students rather to surrender once again to terrorists demands. But it depends on precise intelligence, which at the moment is lacking and the feasibility of such an operation. However if a military operation is not viable, Netanyahu will have to make a tough decision under pressure from families and the public to once again release hundreds of terrorists.