Lashing out against the relentless pressure of IDF raids and interrogations of their members in search of the kidnapped teenagers all this week, Hamas threatened a third intifada on Thursday.
Since the start of operations, 280 Palestinians have been arrested, 53 of whom were freed in the deal for Gilad Shalit. Many members of the top echelons of Hamas have been among those detained by security forces.
Street confrontations by Palestinans, some carrying firearms, others throwing rocks, have turned increasingly violent, and another uprising seemed a distinct possibility.
Gunfire was heard in the Hamas stronghold of Jenin over Wednesday night. In a statement, the IDF said about 300 Palestinians, including some who “hurled explosives and opened fire” confronted soldiers who entered the city looking for the kidnapped boys.
Palestinian hospital officials said three Palestinians suffered bullet wounds in the Jenin fighting. There were no reported Israeli casualties.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Thursday afternoon that more information is known now about the kidnapping than a few days ago; but he did not provide any new details.
The military said that they have searched about 900 locations, much of it house-to-house. There has been no word from the missing teenagers nor any public claim of responsibility or ransom demands — including by Hamas. Hamas, however, has neither confirmed nor denied involvement, and its leadership only recently urged its followers to attempt kidnappings and other forms of terror.
“We are capable of igniting a third Intifada. … It will go off when enough pressure is exerted on the Palestinian people,” said Hamas senior official Salah Bardawil on Thursday.
Jibril Rajoub, a senior Fatah official and former Palestinian Authority security commander, declared on Thursday that Israel understands only the language of abductions.
Meanwhile, on Thursday night, a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip at Ashkelon was intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. Earlier in the evening a rocket was fired from Hamas enclave that exploded in an open field.
The Israel Air Force struck five terrorist targets in Gaza early on Thursday in response to a Palestinian rocket attack on the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council, which damaged a home.
Targets included an underground rocket launcher, and two operational sites in northern Gaza, and two additional sites in central Gaza, according to media reports.
While the search and fighting continues on the ground, a struggle has also been taking place on a diplomatic level, as Israel seeks to delegitimize the Palestinian unity government and recruit support for the IDF’s actions in Yehudah and Shomron.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been calling his counterparts over the past week in Germany, France, Britain, and other countries, to thank them for condemning the kidnapping.
Lieberman instructed the Israeli U.N. delegation to ensure that the kidnapping will be discussed at the next meeting of the Security Council on June 24.
Condemnations of the kidnapping have been forthcoming, if in some cases slowly, and no protest have been registered against the IDF sweeps in Yehudah and Shomron, but if violence escalates Israel will face criticism, as it has during counter-terror operations in the past.
The carefully crafted condemnations issued by world leaders reflect the fact that they are unconvinced that Hamas is behind the kidnapping, The Times of Israel pointed out on Thursday.
Even if Hamas’s involvement were to be proved conclusively — and to date the Israeli government has provided no specific evidence — it is thought unlikely they will pressure Abbas to withdraw from the unity government, since they have accepted Abbas’s definition of it as a technocratic, not a political, entity.
The international community’s reaction to a drawn-out campaign will depend on how cleverly Israel acts, according to Jonathan Rynhold, a political scientist and senior researcher at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
“Israel has got legitimacy to act against Hamas. But that legitimacy will last up until the point where Israel’s response is considered to have gone over a certain line,” he said. “Nobody will try to restrain Israel from acting against Hamas, because it has done a good job convincing the international community that Hamas is behind the kidnapping.”
But if the government takes more drastic steps, such as expelling senior Hamas members from Yehudah and Shomron to Gaza, as Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin did in the early 1990s, or if casualties rise significantly, international support would likely crumble.
Other observers, however, warned against an extensive operation for other reasons, unrelated to the international community.
Alon Liel, a former senior Israeli diplomat, argued that “by expanding a military operation launched as a gut response to a specific act of terror, you in fact create a policy that you didn’t really plan beforehand.”
“Such a strategic decision needs to be carefully examined not only by the army, the intelligence services and the police, but by the entire government, which must consider such a campaign with all the legal and regional implications,” Liel said.
His remarks echoed the recommendations of the Winograd committee, which looked into the failures of the Second Lebanon War, which began under similar circumstances.
Israel doesn’t have much leeway in the international community for a drawn-out military campaign, especially since that community largely faults Israel for the collapse of the peace talks, Liel added. “But you cannot ask Israel to stop looking for the boys, even during Ramadan,” he said. “Whatever the cost is for us in the international arena, we have to continue until we find them.”