Tensions are running high in the West Bank following the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers on their way home from their religious school in the Gush Etzion area near Jerusalem on 12 June. The Yeshiva students were allegedly trying to hitchhike home, and may have been fooled by a new Hyundai i35 with Israeli license plates which was found burnt out nearby in the Southern Hebron hills.
The kidnap of the three teens, Gilad Shaer (16), Naftali Frankel (16), and Eyal Yifrah (19), one of whom is a dual American citizen and all of whom study in a settlement bloc (illegal under international law), has sparked outrage in Israel, yet little attention has been paid by the international community to the deepening crisis evolving. Over 300 Palestinians have been arrested and four Palestinans have been shot dead in the past two week in raids in the West Bank (mainly in Hebron and Nablus), which, the Israeli Defence Forces and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu openly state, is a ‘killing two birds with one stone’ operation: finding the teenagers, whilst weakening Hamas in the West Bank.
The recent announcement of a Fatah-Hamas unity government brought Israeli-Palestinian relations to a new low and was the “nail in the coffin” for any peace negotiations, according to Netanyahu. He announced that the Palestinian Authority would be held responsible for the abduction, despite the area from which they went missing in the West Bank, known as Area C, being under full Israeli civil and military control. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has denounced the kidnappings and pledged to help to find the boys despite what he has termed as the “collective punishment” of West Bank citizens in the aftermath of the kidnapping. A PA official has declared the reconciliation deal with Hamas “null and void” should they be found to be responsible, putting the new unity deal under intense pressure. Netanyahu is adamant that Hamas is responsible, despite their denial of any involvement. Three Jihadist groups have claimed responsibility for the abduction. Conspiracy theories are rife, some even claiming that this may be an Israeli plot to break the Fatah-Hamas unity government, a claim which has caused much consternation in Israel.
Within Israel, the finger pointing has begun. It has been revealed that the police received a call from one of the three teenagers just after they had been kidnapped, but the call was considered a hoax, and not taken seriously until one of the boy’s fathers reported him missing five hours later. An enquiry has begun into the circumstances, as this five hour delay would have given the kidnappers enough time to transport the three to an Israeli’s worst nightmare- Gaza- though this is thought to be unlikely. Gaza is where Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was held in 2006 for five years, before being released in exchange for 1027 Palestinian prisoners. There are some who blame the teenagers themselves for their fate, as hitchhiking in the West Bank is a dangerous practice for Israeli settlers, and fear their lack of judgement could lead to the release of possibly thousands more “security” prisoners. Legislation is currently being pushed through the Knesset (Israeli parliament) which would allow a judge to veto a presidential pardon of murderers they convicted, in order to avoid prisoner swaps in the future. Israel is also developing an emergency app to tackle kidnappings, which would enable people to send a distress message without having to make a call whilst pinpointing their exact location. This is the extent of fear and panic within the Israeli public at the moment.
But with this fear comes anger and hatred. A social media campaign has been launched in the aftermath of the kidnappings, which calls on Israelis to “eliminate” a Palestinian “terrorist” every hour until the three settler boys are found. The page has over 20,000 “likes” and is growing. Meanwhile, in the Palestinian territories, the majority of people appear to support the kidnapping. Reports have been made of prisoners celebrating, and pictures on social media of a three-fingered salute, representing the “capture” of the three teens (known as the “three Shalits”), are doing the rounds. Hopes are high that the capture of the boys may enable thousands of their own to return home.
According to Israeli human rights group Btselem, at the end of April 2014, 196 Palestinian minors were being held in Israeli prisons in administrative detention. Many Palestinians see little difference between the imprisonment of their boys and that of the Israeli teenagers- a view hardened all the more by the fact that they are settlers. With the postponement of negotiations, the ongoing hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners and daily rocket fire from Gaza, peace seems further away than ever.