Missing Settlers Become Weapons in a War on Unity
19 June 2014
By Ramzy Baroud
When three teenage Israeli settlers from the illegal
Jewish settlement of Gush Etzion went missing on 12
June, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw an
opportunity to discredit the fledgling Palestinian
His statements and the actions of the Israeli army
since have centered on indicting the Palestinian
movement Hamas, while also holding the Palestinian
Authority of Mahmoud Abbas responsible for the safety
of the settlers.
But is there a link between the newly formed
Palestinian unity government and the safety of illegal
settlers in the West Bank? According to Netanyahu
Scores of Palestinians have been rounded up by the
Israeli army since the disappearances in what could be
considered a mass arrest campaign, mostly in the
Hebron region. Many of those arrested were Hamas
members, including senior figures in the movement.
"Those who carried out the kidnapping of our
youngsters are Hamas people," Netanyahu insisted at a
cabinet meeting on Sunday.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri has since described the
statements by Netanyahu as "silly". He added that
targeting Hamas figures through arrests was "aimed at
breaking the will of the Hamas movement in the West
Israeli officials were quick to link the disappearance
of the settlers - the 16-year-olds Naftali Frenkel and
Gilad Shaar and the 19-year-old Eyal Yifrach - to the
newly-formed unity government.
A day after the three went missing, US Secretary of
State John Kerry phoned Netanyahu to express his
government's concern. According to the daily Jerusalem
Post, he also contacted PA President Mahmoud Abbas
with the same message.
The PA is reportedly cooperating. "The Israelis and
the Palestinian Authority are working closely together
on efforts to find the three teenagers and to
hopefully bring a quick resolution to the matter," a
Washington official told the post.
No concerns were offered the regarding hundreds of
Palestinian children and teenagers in Israeli jails.
For some reason, both issues are treated as entirely
Meanwhile, Netanyahu is capitalizing on the story in
every way he can. In his call with Kerry, he claimed
that the alleged kidnappings were "the destructive
result" of the newly formed PA unity government.
Since PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah announced a
transitional government as a first step towards
reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, Netanyahu
along with other Israeli officials have been working
hard to thwart its mission.
Netanyahu is insisting that the unity government must
be dissolved and the unity pact with Hamas dismissed
if he is ever to return to the negotiations table. But
what talks is he referring to?
US-backed peace talks failed this year to take a step
forward because Netanyahu carried on seizing
Palestinian land and expanding settlements. He didn't
even fulfil the largely symbolic promise of releasing
a few Palestinian political prisoners - something
which would have allowed Abbas to save face and carry
on with the talks.
Abbas on 12 June dropped the condition of an Israeli
settlement freeze, and was ready to settle with the
release of some long-serving prisoners, yet Netanyahu
still found this unacceptable.
In a statement two days later to Israel Radio,
Netanyahu described the gesture as "meaningless".
Abbas' moves reflect how difficult his position
remains since his Fatah party and Hamas reached an
agreement in the Shati' refugee camp in April, which
led to the formation of a transitional government in
The agreement left many points of contention to be
discussed and settled by various sub-committees with
uncertain chances of success. Since then,
disagreements have flared over crackdowns on Hamas
supporters in the West Bank, unpaid salaries and other
But this is only part of Abbas' dilemma. His security
forces are allowed to currently operate in the West
Bank - but only under the watchful eye of the Israeli
In return for allowing the PA a space for its
operation, PA forces need to be involved in "security
coordination" aimed at securing illegal Jewish
settlements, reining in Palestinian groups and
offering a line of defense for the Israeli army, which
in reality is the one and only ruler of the West Bank
and East Jerusalem.
Unity or no unity, Netanyahu's expectations are
unchanged: "I expect you to help in the return of the
kidnapped youths and the capture of the kidnappers,"
Netanyahu told Abbas in a telephone interview on June
If these are indeed kidnappings, they could have been
carried out other groups. But Israel's targeting of
Hamas can only be politically motivated.
Netanyahu certainly benefits from tension between the
Hamas and Fatah movements, and anything that threatens
a collapse of the unity government. Hamas had already
criticized Abbas for cooperating with Israel.
The longer it takes to find the settlers, the more
political leverage Netanyahu will have. "The Hamas
kidnappers went out from territory controlled by the
Palestinian Authority and returned to territory
controlled by the Palestinian Authority," according to
Netanyahu, in an carefully worded indictment of both
Hamas and the PA.
Netanyahu is even mulling over the deportation of
Hamas members outside the West Bank, a dangerous
option that could complicate relations between
Palestinian factions and drive many Hamas members
For Israel, all of this is creating the necessary
distraction needed to ensure the downfall of the unity
government, and the postponement of any discussion
pertaining to the return to peace talks. For
Netanyahu, it is a win-win situation.
Abbas however is bound by his "commitment" to Israel's
security, a condition through which he continues to
receive support from the US government. Recently, he
even went as far as describing collaboration with the
Israeli army as sacred.
Even chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, himself discredited
by many Palestinians because of his central role in
the Palestine Papers scandal, is attacking Abbas for
his failure to take any action at all. In a leaked
recording, he refers to Abbas as "discredited" and
He derides Abbas' ‘commitment' to Israel. "What
commitment have you made? This isn't your daddy's
farm! This is a nation, this is Palestine. This is
bigger than individuals. He didn't listen to me. I
swear, I submitted my resignation twice," a voice
attributed to Erekat said.
Under these difficult circumstances, it is not easy to
imagine the attainment of real unity. Meanwhile,
Netanyahu will continue to push with all of his might
to guarantee Palestinian failure.
The fact that Netanyahu would go as far as blaming a
government of Palestinian technocrats operating under
Israeli military occupation for failing to protect
illegal Jewish settlers is a testament to the conceit
of the Israeli government.
Regardless of the circumstances behind the
disappearance of the Jewish settlers, this highlights
Netanyahu's determination to ensure the collapse of
the Palestinian unity government at all costs. Yet
considering the many options at his disposal, he might
- Ramzy Baroud is the Managing Editor of Middle
East Eye. He is an internationally-syndicated
columnist, a media consultant, an author and the
founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is
My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story
(Pluto Press, London).