[This article by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon, was written for the website of the 24-hour privately owned TV news service from Israel, i24news.tv .]
As time goes by, the chances of finding the three missing Israeli yeshiva students — who were probably kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank on Thursday — grow slim. The efforts to trace them are now focusing on intelligence reports. Israel’s Security Agency (Shin Bet) and the military’s intelligence agency (Aman) are utilizing all possible means to find the missing students, including human resources and agents as well as through the interception of communications.
There are five possible scenarios for the fate of the Israelis and where they might be. Incidentally Israeli officials are also at dark
- They are alive.
- They are dead and buried.
- If they are alive, they may have been smuggled to a safe shelter in Gaza or even better (from the kidnappers’ perspective) to the Sinai Peninsula.
- They are in a safe house in the West Bank.
- They are somewhere else in the West Bank.
Never before in the bloody history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were three Israelis kidnapped in a single terrorist attack. So far, all 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. The burnt car that was discovered in the vicinity could also just be a distraction.
For now, the prime suspects are Hamas and the Islamic Jihad who have both in recent years attempted to launch kidnapping operations, which were all thankfully foiled. But the timing of this incident is bad for Hamas. Just a few weeks ago the militant group joined a national unity government led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Claiming responsibility for the kidnapping would greatly embarrass Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.
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 that 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 1000 terrorists in exchange for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, 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 that 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 Prime Minister Benyamin 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. If the kidnapped students are alive and currently being held by terrorists and if a military rescue 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.