The discovery Monday by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) of the bodies of three Israeli teens abducted two weeks earlier is not just a rogue act of terror for Israel’s government. According to Israel’s minister of intelligence, Yuval Steinitz, it is ultimately a failure of his country’s one-time peace partner, the Palestinian Authority.
“According to the Oslo agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, they have committed themselves to prevent such acts of terror,” Steinitz told reporters in Washington. “Those Hamas terrorists came from Hebron and from an area under total control, including security control, by the Palestinian Authority.” The minister added, “They failed to prevent the terrorist act, the abduction. We discovered the execution. They should prevent it.”
Steinitz was careful in his candid remarks to acknowledge that the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has publicly denounced the kidnappings. The minister did not mention that Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have cooperated with the IDF in raids on Hamas positions over the last week inside the West Bank, a move particularly unpopular with Palestinians because those raids produced casualties on the Palestinian side.
The three Israeli teenagers—Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Shaar—disappeared from Gush Etzion, a cluster of Israeli settlements south of Jerusalem, on the evening of June 12 or the morning of June 13. In recent days, Israeli aircraft have fired on targets inside Gaza while the IDF has scoured the West Bank, in some cases going house to house, to find the boys, whom officials believed could still be alive. The remains of the boys were found Monday in an open field north of Hebron, a Palestinian majority city that also is home to a Jewish settlement, CNN reported. Palestinian social media accounts on Monday evening posted uncorroborated video that claimed to be new air strikes inside the town of Rafah.
In Washington, the killing of the three Israeli teenagers was widely condemned. In a statement, Secretary of State John Kerry said the news was “simply devastating,” calling it an “especially heavy blow” because of one of the teens, Fraenkel, was an American citizen. Kerry didn’t specifically call on Israel to hold its fire, either. In the last sentence of his two-paragraph statement, he said: “This is a time for all to work towards that goal without destabilizing the situation.”
In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised that Hamas would pay a heavy price. But Steinitz had particularly stern words for Abbas, whom he referred to by his nom de guerre, Abu Mazen.
“We call on Abu Mazen to immediately reject Hamas representatives, to fire them and to change its government if he wants to leave some chance for some progress in the peace process in the future,” he said. “If he wants to leave some chance for peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, he cannot continue, cannot foment, cannot proceed with a unity government.”
When Abbas began talks last month to form a unity government with Hamas, the Israelis saw the move as a provocation. The charter of Hamas pledges to destroy the Jewish state, and Israel has negotiated with the group only for the return of hostages.
President Obama differed. He left open the prospect that U.S. financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority could continue despite U.S. laws prohibiting the U.S. funding of any Palestinian government of which Hamas was a part. So Abbas struck a compromise with his Islamist rivals: He gave four Cabinet seats to Hamas, but the Cabinet ministers are technically not members of the organization.
Steinitz said that even that compromise was a problem. In his remarks, he compared Hamas to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), the jihadist group that has taken over major cities in Iraq this month. “This is just a reminder that Hamas is a cruel terrorist organization that sends hundreds of suicide bombers into Israel in the past and now executed three young boys,” he said. “In this regard I don’t see much difference between the behavior of these Hamas terrorists and the terrorists from ISIS who executed Iraqi soldiers.”
Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, said Steinitz was wrong to blame the Palestinian Authority for the abduction and killing of the three Israeli teens.
“This is off the deep end,” he said. “It is as if to say that all Palestinians are guilty of something that was likely committed by a faction of Hamas that seeks to discredit Abu Mazen and undermine the Hamas-Fatah agreement.”
Ibish acknowledged that under prior peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian side was responsible for preventing these kinds of attacks. “The Palestinians under Oslo are obligated to do everything they can,” he said. “The fact that something happened does not mean they are negligent or complicit. There is no evidence of that.”
While Palestinian security forces patrol the West Bank during the day, the IDF nonetheless conducts night raids in Palestinian areas throughout the West Bank.
Steinitz pointed out that the recent turmoil in the Middle East offered Israel a cautionary tale about abandoning territory in future peace negotiations. Steinitz, like many Israeli politicians, supported the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, known at the time as disengagement. That has proved to be a mistake, he said Monday.
“Everyone was telling us we can trust a viable Palestinian state,” he said. “The international community, the Americans, everyone. ‘This will secure our security, our future,’ they said.” But that was not the case, he noted. “What you see in Iraq, you did prepare very strong local forces in training of the Iraqi police and armed forces, and it didn’t secure the Iraqi people. Also in Syria there was a strong security force, and even if you look at the Palestinian Authority, after we pulled out of Gaza, there were 1,000 armed policemen, and the Islamist zealots still took over. These events tell us we can only trust ourselves for our own security.”
For now Israel also is trusting Jordan’s armed forces to repel any potential attack from ISIS. As The Daily Beast reported last week, Israeli officials have told their U.S. counterparts that they would take military action to save Jordan’s monarchy if it was seriously threatened.
Steinitz reiterated that pledge on Monday.
“We are prepared to do whatever is necessary,” he said. “Still, I think the Jordanian forces are well equipped, and in the past they have shown themselves to be very effective.” In 1970, Israel was prepared to use its air force to defend Jordan when Syria invaded its territory, he said, but in the end Jordan repelled Syria without Israeli assistance. “I think first Jordanian forces, if needed, they would be able to protect Jordan. And if we will be asked to help, I don’t believe we can refuse to help. If they really need us, Israel and also the United States will help.”