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 continued…