In the weeks since the Israeli government learned of the kidnappings of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel, its military and intelligence sources have worked tirelessly to piece together the puzzle of what happened, where it happened and precisely how it happened.
One piece of the puzzle, though — who did it — appears to have been clear since the beginning, according to Israeli government officials. They have named two Hamas operatives — Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha — as the kidnappers and murderers of the three teenage boys, and say the two were acting — explicitly or implicitly — on orders from Hamas’ leadership. The whereabouts of both men are currently unknown.
Coming just weeks after the formation of a Hamas-Palestinian Authority (PA) unity government, Israel’s accusation that Hamas orchestrated the triple murder reinforces its position that Western nations must pressure PA President Mahmoud Abbas to break all ties with Hamas if he wants peace with Israel.
On June 13, shortly after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Hamas was behind the kidnapping, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon said in an interview with the Journal that Hamas’ involvement ought to prompt the Obama administration to cut its annual aid allocation of $400 million to the PA until it breaks with Hamas.
On the same day, David Siegel, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, also said there was “no doubt” the kidnappings was a Hamas operation, but would not elaborate on the evidence for his statement. And in an interview on June 30, just hours after the boys’ bodies were found under a pile of rocks in a field north of Hebron, Siegel stressed again that the murders were not the work of lone Hamas operatives.
“I can tell you that there’s absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Hamas is squarely behind this — as an organization,” Siegel said. Again, though, he said he could not disclose how the Israeli government knows that Qawasmeh and Aisha were acting with the approval of, or under the direction of, Hamas’ top brass.
Danon, who posted on his Facebook page on June 30 that the murders should mean “the end of Hamas,” took a less definitive stance than Siegel on whether Hamas, as a group, ordered the abduction, but said on July 1 that, from Israel’s perspective, it doesn’t matter.
“They were Hamas activists for years,” Danon said of the suspects. “They were arrested for being involved in terrorist activities in the past — all the [people] around them are Hamas activists. So it doesn’t matter whether they got the direct order a week ago [or] a year ago. But the fact that they belong to the Hamas organization speaks for itself,” Danon said.
Danon said he hopes the murders will “make it very clear” to Americans that their government is allowing “the taxpayer money of U.S. citizens to be used to support terrorist activities against Israelis.”
An outspoken opponent of recent lopsided trades of Palestinian prisoners for abducted Israelis or as a precondition to negotiations, Danon called upon Netanyahu to respond to these murders in a manner similar to how former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded to the Passover bombings at Netanya’s Park Hotel in 2002, in which a Hamas suicide bomber — disguised as a woman — blew himself up, murdering 30 Israeli civilians and wounding 140, most of them elderly.
On the day following that attack, Israeli forces launched Operation Defensive Shield, a five-week operation in the West Bank that targeted key members of Hamas and the PA (known then as Fatah) and severely restricted the ability of terrorist cells to operate.
“I think it’s now the time to declare a war against Hamas,” the deputy defense minister said, adding that he wants the Israeli military to immediately expand operations in the West Bank. “We should crack down on the Hamas infrastructure, including the civilian infrastructure in Judea and Samaria.”
In a phone call from Israel at 4 a.m., Jonathan Schachter, a senior adviser to Netanyahu, said that whether or not Qawasmeh and Aisha were taking orders or working on their own accord is a “distinction without a difference,” adding in a follow-up email that Hamas bears the responsibility for the actions of terrorists with whom it is affiliated.
“You have this pact that President Abbas signed with Hamas, and from there you get expanded Hamas activity in the West Bank, so there’s nothing surprising about this attack,” Schachter said. “Hamas is behind this attack, is responsible for this attack, and as the prime minister said earlier this evening, Hamas will pay.”
The night after the teenagers’ bodies were found, the Israeli Air Force bombed 34 sites in Gaza. Those operations, according to the military, were a response to a recent uptick in Hamas rocket attacks against Israel.
A Palestinian man inspects what police said was a chicken coop damaged in a nearby Israeli air strike in the central Gaza Strip on June 29. Photo by Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters
Matthew Levitt, a Middle East expert for the Washington Institute, is not surprised that Israel’s government has been more or less mum regarding who among Hamas’ leadership had knowledge of the kidnappings.
“Hamas lays out these larger operational guidelines,” Levitt said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. “Even if there was no Hamas individual who told these people, ‘Go kidnap these three people in Gush Etzion right now’ — this is something that was very much tied to Hamas leadership. There’s really no question about that.”
He added that certain “operational considerations” could preclude Israeli officials from going public with its full slate of evidence — which may include, he said, indications that Saleh al-Arouri, a Hamas operative now living openly in Turkey, had direct connections to the kidnappers.
A fire worker inspects the family home of an alleged abductor after a blast on the top floor in Hebron on July 1. Photo by Ammar Awad/Reuters
Some analysts have suggested Hamas’ willingness to partner with the PA, its rival organization within Palestinian society, had indicated that it was desperate for legitimacy and money following the closure of tunnels into Gaza and the fall of the pro-Hamas Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt.
Levitt said the kidnappings may have been an attempt by Hamas to improve its reputation among Palestinians. “Hamas is trying very hard to resurrect its status as a ‘resistance’ organization, and kidnapping is seen among many Palestinians as something legitimate — it’s not like a suicide bombing,” Levitt said. He argued Hamas’ failure to admit responsibility is only further evidence of its vulnerability, and any claim to that effect would only put them “even more in the crosshairs” of Israel’s military.
“There’s absolutely no benefit to Hamas claiming credit,” he said. “There are no kidnapped people to trade; there are no bodies of dead kidnapped people to trade.”
In an email to the Journal, Schachter said Israel’s “ongoing operation” will “strike at the Hamas infrastructure — which helped make the kidnapping possible — in the West Bank and Gaza.”
“The hunt for the boys’ killers is ongoing,” Schachter wrote. “Once they and their accomplices have been brought to justice, Israeli authorities will be able to publicly release additional evidence.”
You can follow Jared Sichel on Twitter @thesichel