When the bodies of three Israeli teenagers, kidnapped in the West Bank, were found late last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not mince words. "Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay," he said, initiating a campaign that eventually escalated into the present conflict in the region.
But now, Israeli officials admit the kidnappings were not Hamas's handiwork after all. (Update: The comments from the Israeli spokesperson in question indicate that the group thought to be responsible, a "lone cell," may not have been under direct orders from Hamas's leadership, but was loosely affiliated with the group. The headline of this post has been changed to reflect that discrepancy. See below for more.)
BuzzFeed reporter Sheera Frenkel was among the first to suggest that it was unlikely that Hamas was behind the deaths of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrach. Citing Palestinian sources and experts in the field, Frenkel reported that kidnapping three Israeli teens would be a foolish move for Hamas. International experts told her it was likely the work of a local group, acting without concern for the repercussions:
[Gershon Baskin] pointed out that Hamas has earlier this month signed an agreement to form a unity government with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, bridging, for the first time in seven years, the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza.
“They will lose their reconciliation agreement with Abbas if they do take responsibility for [the kidnappings],” Baskin added.
Today, she may have been proven right:
After Israel's top leadership exhaustively blamed Hamas for kidnap of 3 teens, they've now admitted killers were acting as "lone cell."— Sheera Frenkel (@sheeraf) July 25, 2014
Order of events: 3 teens kidnapped->100s of Palestns in WB arrested->revenge attacks on Palestinians->violence along Gaza/Israel border->war— Sheera Frenkel (@sheeraf) July 25, 2014
Repeated inconsistencies in Israeli descriptions of the situation have sparked debate over whether Israel wanted to provoke Hamas into a confrontation. Israeli intelligence is also said to have known that the boys were dead shortly after they disappeared, but to have maintained public optimism about their safe return to beef up support from the Jewish diaspora. Writing for Al Jazeera, Musa al-Gharbi argued that Israel was deliberately provoking Hamas:
All the illegal and immoral actions related to Operation Brother’s Keeper were justified under the premise of finding and saving the missing teens whom the Israeli government knew to be dead — cynically exploiting the tragedy to whip up public outcry in order to provoke and then confront Hamas. This pattern of deception continues under the ongoing military offensive in Gaza. For example, last week in collaboration with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Abbas, in its efforts to alienate Hamas, Israel announced a bad-faith cease-fire proposal, which Hamas was not consulted on and never agreed to but whose violation supposedly justified Israel’s expansion and intensification of the military campaign into Gaza.
Despite continued negotiations, the violence shows no signs of letting up, and after Thursday night's massive protests in the West Bank, there is still no ceasefire agreement. On Friday, it became clear that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's attempts to broker a seven-day truce were rejected by Israeli officials. Instead, Israel will apparently widen its ground operation in the Gaza Strip, despite international outcry about the civilian death toll. According to unnamed officials, the proposed truce was too generous to Hamas's demands.
Hamas, meanwhile, still hasn't weighed in on the agreement, whose details are being kept secret, but continued to launch rockets into Israel. International peace talks are set to resume in France this weekend, and we're keeping our fingers crossed.
Updated, July 26, 11:44 a.m.: This claim was also reported by BBC's Jon Donnison, who spoked to Israel Police Foreign Press Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld:
Israeli police MickeyRosenfeld tells me men who killed 3 Israeli teens def lone cell, hamas affiliated but not operating under leadership1/2— Jon Donnison (@JonDonnison) July 25, 2014
Seems to contradict the line from Netanyahu government. 2/2— Jon Donnison (@JonDonnison) July 25, 2014
Israeli police spokes Mickey Rosenfeld also said if kidnapping had been ordered by Hamas leadership, they'd have known about it in advance.— Jon Donnison (@JonDonnison) July 25, 2014
Mickey Rosenfeld said lone cells much harder to track. Said they would find whoever was now protecting the two suspects.— Jon Donnison (@JonDonnison) July 25, 2014
Update, July 28, 9:21 a.m.: Rosenfeld, the Israeli spokesperson, is seeking to clarify that while the lone cell did not receive direct orders from Hamas, it was still affiliated. “The kidnapping and murder of the teens was carried out by Hamas terrorists from the Hebron area,” he claimed in comments to The Daily Beast. “The security organizations are continuing to search for the murderers.”
But Donnison, the BBC journalist, is not backtracking from his earlier reporting:
For those asking, I stick by 100% tweets regarding comments made to me by Israeli police spokes Mickey Rosenfeld. He said it. Period. 1/2— Jon Donnison (@JonDonnison) July 26, 2014
And what's more I suspect what he said is common knowledge in Israeli intelligence circles. 2/2— Jon Donnison (@JonDonnison) July 26, 2014