As they did every Thursday night, at around 10 pm on June 12, Eyal Yifrach, 19, and Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar, both 16, left their yeshivas in the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank to hitchhike home for Shabbat. At 10:25 one of them phoned an emergency number to report that they were kidnapped, but the call was not taken seriously. When the authorities were alerted several hours later that the boys were missing, Israeli troops flooded the area in search of them. On Sunday morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had proof that Hamas, the extremist Palestinian faction dedicated to the destruction of Israel that controls Gaza, was responsible for the kidnapping, a claim later echoed by U.S. Secretary of State Kerry. Since then, Israel has arrested hundreds of Hamas operatives on the West Bank, including more than 50 who had been released from prison in 2012 as part of the deal that freed the last Israeli kidnap victim, Gilad Shalit. The search has so far been unsuccessful and the boys have not been found.
All of this was taking place within the broader context of Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic maneuvering. On April 23, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party is willing to recognize Israel and favors a two-state solution, pulled out of the peace negotiations with Israel engineered by Secretary Kerry that had been proceeding since the beginning of the year, and announced a rapprochement with Hamas. On June 2, a Fatah-Hamas unity government was announced that would prepare for elections in six months. Abbas said the new entity was committed to a peaceful two-state solution, and that all the appointed cabinet members, even those representing Hamas, were apolitical technocrats. Hamas leaders, however, said that their faction was in no way abandoning its refusal to recognize Israel, renounce violence, and accept previous agreements. While Israel announced it would not deal with any Palestinian government that included Hamas, most other countries—even the United States and the EU nations, which officially categorized Hamas as a terrorist organization—said they would maintain relations with the unity government. That diplomatic posture has not changed even after the kidnappings of the three boys.
On Wednesday, June 18, President Abbas condemned the kidnappings as counter to Palestinian interests, saying that the perpetrators “want to destroy us.” He also addressed the issue in human terms, stressing, “They are human beings and we are looking for them and we will hold their kidnappers accountable, whoever they are.” Hamas has not claimed credit for the act, but a spokesman said, “We emphasize our people’s right to defend themselves and counter the occupation’s crimes with all possible means.” Whetherthe aim of the operation was to embarrass Fatah in Palestinian eyes by making it seem insufficiently anti-Israel, or simply to exchange the latest victims for Hamas prisoners now in Israeli jails, by illuminating the wide gap between the Palestinian factions over relations with Israel the kidnappings raise serious doubts about the viability of the projected Palestinian unity regime.
Besides urgently seeking the return of the victims to their families, Israel’s determined actions on the West Bank are also intended to head off the unity government by dealing a body blow to Hamas and thereby strengthening the more moderate Fatah. The safety of three innocent young men and the prospects for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian dispute may hinge on the success of those actions.