West Bank kidnappers give second wind to Netanyahu

The kidnapping was a wicked and stupid act. But nothing can justify Israel’s flagrant violations of international law or their demonstrated contempt for human rights

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In response to the disappearance and presumed kidnapping of three young Israelis, Benjamin Netanyahu struck with a vengeance. While directly blaming Hamas for the act, he also declared the Palestinian Authority ultimately responsible. Mr Netanyahu quickly launched "Operation Brother's Keeper", an antiseptic name for a full scale assault on the entire Palestinian population in the occupied territories. Hundreds of Hamas leaders have been arrested and are now being held without charge. Entire communities have been closed off, victims of illegal collective punishment. Checkpoints have intensified. Within some cities, door-to-door searches are underway. Homes have been destroyed and families dispossessed. Fear is widespread, as is anger.

By any measure, the kidnapping was a wicked and stupid act. In no way, can the action be justified as moral, responsible or an act of resistance.

But nothing can justify Israel’s flagrant violations of international law or their demonstrated contempt for human rights. But because the Israeli response was completely predictable, the kidnapping must also be judged to have been stupid and irresponsible. The perpetrators must be condemned for their callous disregard not only for the lives of three youngsters they now hold, but for the suffering they have brought to the Palestinian people.

There is another way in which Mr Netanyahu is to blame for this horror. In a perverse way, he has established the logic that guides the behaviour of the kidnappers. The Israelis have long made a practice of exchanging prisoners. With thousands of Palestinians in their prisons, including hundreds being held without charge, the Israelis often treat them as objects for barter. Not too long ago, Mr Netanyahu presented Hamas with over one thousand prisoners in exchange for a captive Israeli soldier. With Palestinian society closely following the weeks’ long hunger strike of 100 administrative detainees (those held for prolonged periods without any charges or trial), one supposes that some might have assumed that the way to end the torment of these captives was to create the conditions for another prisoner exchange.

While Mr Netanyahu has declared with certainty that Hamas is responsible for the kidnapping, no evidence for this charge has been offered, and to a Hamas-hating Israeli public, no evidence appears to be needed. But guilty or not, Hamas has behaved badly before and after the kidnapping. Despite agreeing to a reconciliation pact with the PA, they have continued to make irresponsible boastful statements maintaining their right to “armed resistance”.

Since the kidnapping, instead of behaving as responsible partners in a unity government, Hamas got cagey. They would not condemn the act and instead, “a high ranking Hamas official” told Al-Monitor, “Hamas truly does not know who stands behind the operation, because there is a separation of duties between the military and political branches of the movement. The politicians instruct the military to find a solution to the prisoner dossier, and the men on the ground have the freedom to choose the time, place, and operational details.”

The kidnapping has been a godsend for Mr Netanyahu. He was under increasing international pressure for his continued illegal settlement expansion and his responsibility for the collapse of the peace talks. His rejection of the Palestinian unity government was rebuffed by Europe and the US. And he was on the ropes at home, after new revelations of his questionable spending habits and an embarrassing defeat for his favoured candidate in the recent presidential contest.

With the kidnapping, Mr Netanyahu has been reborn. Playing the victim card and confronting enemies is what he loves most and does best. The kidnappers have given him an undeserved second wind. No longer “the obstacle to peace,” he has become “the defender of his victim people.”

The PA's unity government enterprise has also been impacted by these events. Mahmoud Abbas is clearly not responsible for this state of affairs, but try to tell that to average Israeli. And try to tell Palestinians that Mr Abbas' approach to peace through negotiations is the correct path, when they see new settlements going up, their communities ravaged by an unjust siege, their detainees dying, and Mr Netanyahu crowing.

The hunger striking detainees are also victims of the kidnapping. These are not men guilty of any crime – nor have they ever been charged with any crime. Their plight and their right to be freed from illegal incarceration, once gaining support in Israel and the West, is now forgotten.

With Mr Netanyahu hell-bent on wiping out Hamas, there should be no doubt that this enterprise will backfire just as it has in the past. Extremist groups, born of resentment and reacting to powerlessness, are only fueled by more oppression. This was the lesson Yitzhak Rabin should have learnt when he attempted to destroy Hamas in the early 1990s. It was the lesson that Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert should have learnt in the last decade. They did not, and neither has Mr Netanyahu.

The lesson to all sides should be clear, but they have never been learnt: more violent resistance will not end the occupation, and more violent repression will not end the resistance. Negotiations and non-violent resistance are the only way forward. But right now, in the midst of this unfolding tragedy, no one appears to be listening.

James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa