HEBRON, West Bank — The few Hamas officials left in this southern West Bank city fear that the end is near.
Over the last four days, Israel has arrested more than 200 Palestinians whom it claims are affiliated with the group, which it blames for the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers last week. Many of those arrested come from Hebron, which was once a hub for Hamas in the West Bank.
Few now venture near the mosques and nearby cafes that were once popular meeting points for Hamas members and their supporters. Some say there are fears that even mentioning Hamas these days is enough to get you arrested.
“They are on a witch hunt,” said Ahmed Ali, a shopkeeper who watched Israeli army forces arrest two of his neighbor’s sons on Monday night. “God help us if they don’t find those three boys soon.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to do everything in his power to find the three Israeli teens, Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Sha’er and Naftali Frankel, who were kidnapped last Friday while hitchhiking near their settlement of Kfar Etzion. Naftali Bennet, a right-wing minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet, told army radio Tuesday that Israel was “turning Hamas membership into a ticket to hell.”
Hamas officials in Gaza said they are “feeling the wrath” of Netanyahu and denied having a hand in the kidnapping.
“This is what Netanyahu wanted to do, and the three kidnapped boys gave him an excuse,” said one Hamas official, who spoke to BuzzFeed by phone. He asked not to be identified, as the senior leadership had passed down orders not to speak about the kidnapping. “Someone from Hamas might take responsibility for this, but it will be a lie. No one from Hamas wanted this now.”
The Fatah Party of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has said that it would reconsider its unity deal with Hamas if it was discovered that Hamas was behind the kidnapping. The already fragile deal, which ended a seven-year rift between the two groups, has come close to collapse as PA forces assisted Israeli soldiers in routing out Hamas members in the West Bank this week.
Among those arrested in Israel’s sweep are journalists who have written articles sympathetic to Hamas, and politicians affiliated with the movement. Over the weekend, a video surfaced of Israeli soldiers leading Palestinian parliament speaker and Hamas member Aziz Dweik out of his home in Hebron in the middle of the night.
The crackdowns have also affected many with no affiliation to Hamas. Israeli officials announced that they were canceling family visits to Palestinians in Israeli jails, and stripping many prisoners of their rights.
The Palestinian information ministry accused Israel of inflicting collective punishment on Palestinians in the territory. “An entire population is being held hostage to the whims of the Israeli occupation,” the ministry said in a statement.
Both Israeli and Palestinian officials have cast doubt over Netanyahu’s statements saying Hamas stood behind the kidnapping. No ransom request has been made for the teenagers since their disappearance, and claims that a Palestinian branch of ISIS was behind the kidnapping have been met with skepticism. Officials say it is more likely that whoever kidnapped the boys did so as a crime of opportunity and with no real orders from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or any other senior Palestinian leadership.
“These kids have gone missing against their free will, but no one has claimed responsibility, and their bodies have not been found. There have been no facts presented to the public that they have been abducted by Hamas, so we need the correct information,” former head of the Mossad’s MIA division, Rami Igra, told the Jerusalem Post this week. “The fact that [Netanyahu] is naming who abducted these kids is more political than based on fact.”
Israeli and Palestinian officials told BuzzFeed it was more likely that the teens were taken without the knowledge of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or any other senior militant movement.
“What we do know, is that this was likely an opportunistic move. The men behind this may have ties to a larger terror group, but this does not have the markings of a well-planned, complex operation,” one Israeli officer, based in the West Bank, told BuzzFeed. “It makes it more difficult to find them if there isn’t a larger trail of intelligence to sniff out.”
Fears in Hebron are running high.
“They are arresting anybody who ever looked at Hamas or spoke about Hamas,” said Heba Khadouri, whose two sons were arrested in the middle of the night Monday. “They are trying to wipe out the name of Hamas.”