Three Israeli teenagers kidnapped from the West Bank have been missing for more than 10 days now, their names — Naftali, Gilad, Eyal — becoming staples of synagogue prayers and cafe chatter across this tiny country. Four Palestinians, one of them 15, have been killed by Israeli troops, their photos hoisted at mass funerals as martyrs in the liberation struggle.
The abduction and its aftermath, in which Israel has unleashed its most intense West Bank crackdown in nearly a decade, have shaken the Palestinian leadership body that works with international negotiators and have roiled a territory that those diplomats have envisioned as a future Palestinian state. Any prospect for a return to Israeli-Palestinian talks seems ever more remote.
After winning the world’s support for a new government rooted in reconciliation with the militant Islamic movement Hamas, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority is under unprecedented attack for cooperating with Israel’s search for the teenagers. He has been vilified as a traitor and threatened with death on social media, and even activists from his own Fatah faction posted Facebook statements challenging his rule.
The crisis at first buoyed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel with a wave of domestic unity and international outrage, but he has begun to see a backlash against Israel’s arrest campaign. He faces demands to provide proof backing his claim that Hamas is behind the abduction, and even members of his own Cabinet have second-guessed his dismissal of Abbas’ supportive statement.
With the wider Middle East engulfed in violent turmoil, analysts increasingly fear the explosion of a third intifada in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — or the unraveling of the Palestinian Authority — if the teenagers are not found and the Israeli campaign continues to erode Abbas’s credibility and control.
Nearly two months after the collapse of Secretary John Kerry’s peace talks, the situation only highlights the huge gulf, political and psychological, between the long-warring neighbours.
“In Israel, the whole country is obsessed by this and can’t think of anything more horrible, and on the Palestinian side, you see these cartoons where it’s celebrated,” said Dennis B. Ross, the former US peace negotiator, who arrived in Jerusalem during the weekend. “It’s not just the two publics, it’s the two leaders who have looked at each other through a lens of basic disbelief.”
Before dawn on Sunday, Palestinian protesters clashed not only with Israeli soldiers but also, for the first time, with their own security forces, smashing at least four police cars and storming a police station in the West Bank city of Ramallah that Israeli troops had used as a staging area.
Fanning the flames, Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki lent credence on Sunday to conspiracy theories circulating on social media about Israel’s having staged the abduction as a pretext to crack down on Hamas and derail the reconciliation. He, like Abbas, questioned Israel’s “absence of proof” connecting Hamas to the kidnapping and told a Saudi newspaper that it could be “a childish game on the part of Israel.”
Interviews in the West Bank and Gaza showed widespread embrace of this idea. At the same time, many people praised the abduction as the best hope for securing the release of Palestinians in Israeli jails.
“This is a brave operation, and I support it,” Yahia Akila, 50, who owns a juice and ice cream shop in Gaza City, said on Saturday. “Politics do not work with the Israelis. This is the language they understand.”
At Friday’s funeral for 15-year-old Mohammed Jihad Dudeen, who was killed hours earlier while throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, dozens in the crowd of 6,000 shouted, “How sweet and fine the abduction was!” while brandishing the yellow, green, black and red flags of various Palestinian factions.
In Israel, Netanyahu on Sunday began responding to the increasing pressure prompted by the crackdown. He insisted that the government had “unequivocal proof” that the kidnapping was Hamas’s doing, and that he had provided it to several countries and would make it public soon.
Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-Israeli author, said he had rarely seen such emotional unity here. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews lit three extra Shabbat candles on Friday to represent the teenagers, he said, and shopkeepers greet strangers with a wish for good news about “our boys.”
“This goes to the most basic DNA of the society: We are a society that lives and survives in the Middle East because we send our sons into situations of unbearable risk,” Halevi said. “All of our communal feelings and all of our existential feelings converge on this event, and it’s enforced by everything that’s happening on our borders.”