Tel Aviv — As emotionally spent Israelis on Tuesday buried three teenagers discovered murdered in the West Bank, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was left to grapple with the question of how to craft a response — in a crisis that has become a crucial moment in his administration.
In the hours after the discovery of the bodies of yeshiva students Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar, Netanyahu called the perpetrators “beasts” and said, “Hamas is responsible, Hamas will pay.” Those remarks were followed by calls from cabinet members to “eradicate” the leadership of Hamas.
Commentators in Israel newspapers wondered whether the Israeli response would be driven by emotion, politics or by national security considerations. At stake, they said, is the need to exact a price to deter militants from carrying out attacks in the future, while maintaining international sympathy with Israel and avoiding a possible flare-up with Hamas in its Gaza stronghold.
“The security crisis created by the kidnapping is still at its height,” wrote Amos Harel in the liberal Haaretz newspaper. “The Netanyahu government needs to maneuver between fierce public anger over the murder of the teens, the political pressure from within the right wing of the coalition for a tough Israeli response, and the fear of a deterioration into a widespread violent conflict with Hamas.”
Amid two rounds of consultations with Netanyahu’s security cabinet, a debate broke out between coalition hardliners advocating harsh measures and more moderate cabinet members who warned against the risks of escalation and actions that would strengthen Hamas and undermine Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
“You have different opinions in the coalition and different opinions in the cabinet,” said Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, a hardliner from Netanyahu’s Likud Party who criticized moderates for embracing Abbas after his reconciliation with Hamas.
“I hope the prime minister will show leadership and order severe actions against the Hamas organization, like destroying the houses, expelling activists to Gaza, and crushing completely the infrastructure in Judea and Samaria,” said Danon. “We should make it clear to the international community that when Abbas is working with Hamas he’s promoting terrorism.”
The initial news of the discovery of the yeshiva students’ bodies came as a shock for Israelis, even though many privately feared that, after more than two weeks passed, the three teens kidnapped would not be rescued alive. The official statements from the government and the military during the 18 days of the boys’ disappearance insisted that their working assumption was that the boys were still alive. But that sense was undermined by the lack of any claims of responsibility or ransom demands. Political and military leaders dropped hints that the passage of time did not bode well for the boys, and that a reprise of the Gilad Shalit hostage crisis was unlikely.
Minutes after the news broke on Monday night, people were trying to make sense of the tragedy. Watching the breaking news at Café Aroma in Jerusalem’s German Colony neighborhood, Laine Katz said she was both “very sad about the boys’ death” but also conflicted.
“I’m the mother of a soldier who has been searching for them. But at the same time I believe this kidnapping didn’t occur in a vacuum. I believe the occupation is wrong. That may sound cold, but that’s how I feel,” she said.
However Moshe Fine, a self-described right-wing Jerusalemite, said the Israeli government “must wipe out Hamas and every other terrorist organization that feeds on our children. If we don’t, they will just steal more of our teenagers, both civilians and soldiers.”
Such public frustration poses a challenge for Netanyahu, who campaigned in 2009 on the promise that he would be “tough on Hamas.”
“The prime minister and his ministers hear the voices emanating from the communities in which the families live, from activists in their own parties, from the street, and they feel the need to respond to those voices,” wrote Nahum Barnea, the leading political commentator in the Yediot Achronot newspaper. “They are afraid of coming across as impotent, as overly responsible, as suckers of the Hamas enemy.”
However, for all the anger and blame directed at Hamas, Israel’s prime minister actually doesn’t have very good options to exact his payment from Hamas, analysts said.
In the West Bank, a two-and-a-half-week military assault on Hamas landed some 300 activists — including the top political leadership — in detention and targeted dozens of Islamist charities with surprise raids. Israel’s military has few targets left for a follow-up because Hamas has been under tight surveillance for years by Israel and the Palestinian Authority security services.
And despite a recent upsurge in cross-border violence with Gaza, neither Hamas nor Netanyahu is believed to be looking for a new war. That assumption would seem to rule out revisiting a policy of targeted assassinations against Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip.
Shlomo Brom, a former head of strategic planning in the military and a fellow that the Institute for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, said that he expects the prime minister will continue his track record of judicious use of force.
“Everything that can be done [against Hamas] is being done,” he said. “I think Netanyahu will be very cautious and avoid shifting the exchange of fire in the Gaza Strip into something larger. There are indications that Egypt and Hamas are trying to tamp down the hostilities.”
However, in the absence of attractive options to go after Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure, Israel’s government is likely to take provocative measures with political and symbolic resonance to mollify public opinion.
Such moves could include ordering home demolitions, deporting Hamas members to the Gaza Strip, and/or approving new settlement activities — a move often referred to by pro-settler hardliners as “a suitable Zionist response.”
Indeed, even though Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon reportedly opposed a military escalation, he backed the establishment of a new settlement in the West Bank — a move that spurred objections from Justice Minister Tzippi Livni. While proponents argue that such a move sends a message of Israeli resilience toward Palestinian hardliners, critics argue that it would both stir up international criticism of Israel, forfeit sympathy over the teens, and backfire on Israel by strengthening Hamas at the expense of Abbas.
Back in Jerusalem, the outlook among café goers remained dour. A young man named Yossi, who declined to provide his last name, predicted that the conflict will escalate due to the kidnapping and the subsequent Israeli raids into the West Bank to find the teens.
“There’s no end to this,” he said. “The pain one side is feeling won’t allow it to feel the other side’s pain, and until they feel each other’s pain, this cycle of violence will continue.”