Kidnapping crisis rocks Palestinian unity government, as Fatah officials scramble to distance themselves from Hamas-linked abductions

 

Officials from the Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas have spent recent days openly lashing out against the rival Hamas faction as evidence continued to emerge - acknowledged by the Americans, by the Israelis, and by Fatah officials themselves - that the terror group was linked to last Thursday's abduction of three Israeli teenagers traveling through the West Bank. The crisis comes just a weeks after Abbas inked a unity pact with Hamas leaders under which they agreed to the formation of a consensus government that would have jurisdiction over both the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip and over Fatah-controlled portions of the West Bank. The subsequent formation of the new cabinet generated substantial controversy and cost Abbas and his international supporters significant political and diplomatic capital, but eventually Western governments - including the Obama administration - had decided to continue supporting Ramallah. Washington had in particular worked closely with PA officials to avoid running afoul of U.S. laws restricting aid to governments that include Hamas. Fatah figures are now said to be seething over what they consider to be something between recklessness and betrayal on the part of Hamas. Abbas publicly condemned the abductions on Monday. Veteran Arab affairs reporter Avi Issacharoff has since that condemnation published a series of articles quoting Abbas's allies conveying open anger and promises of retribution. A Monday afternoon article contained accusations that 'Hamas was trying to undermine the relative peace in the West Bank and foment unrest against both Israel and the Palestinian Authority' and that 'Hamas will pay a steep price for the kidnapping... in the form of punitive steps with which the PA plans to target Hamas in Gaza.' A story published by Issacharoff a few hours later confirmed Hamas's involvement in the abductions and quoted a Fatah source insisting that Hamas had promised not to engage in violent operations as a condition for the unity pact. The same source emphasized that "if it becomes clear that Hamas is responsible for the kidnapping and breached the agreement, that would mark the crossing of a red line from our point of view, and we could not maintain the reconciliation status quo." A day later Issacharoff published an article seemingly confirming that Fatah had taken steps to roll back the reconciliation.

 

CNN on Tuesday conveyed reports that Islamist militants loyal to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have made significant gains outside of Baghdad, where fighters are advancing on the city of Baquba and where more than 50 people were killed when ISIS militants used hand grenades to attack a local prison. The news comes a day after the publication of a Daily Beast report detailing Iranian offers to Baghdad of among other things its army and spies in an effort to curb the advance of ISIS across the country. The Daily Beast cited senior Iraqi officials as saying that the offers of assistance came “from the highest levels of the Iranian government.” The Daily Beast report will be read alongside the 2013 State Department country-by-country report [PDF] released last month, which slammed Tehran for supporting both Sunni and Shiite fighters across the region and globally. Iranian efforts to sustain the Shiite expansionism of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki have alienated Iraqi Sunnis, making regions of the country hospitable for the current Sunni-led insurgency.

 

At least 31 people were killed Monday in barrel bomb attacks in the northern city of Aleppo, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog group. The Assad regime has been waging an aerial bombing campaign against rebel-held areas of Aleppo since December, with the death toll for 2014 exceeding 2,000. The use of the helicopter-deployed, shrapnel-packed IEDs – which can level entire buildings with a single explosion – has been slammed by top Western diplomats -- Secretary of State John Kerry has referred to the use of the bombs as “barbaric”; British Foreign Secretary William Hague went so far as to call their use a “war crime." The latest wave of barrel bombings comes as observers are growing increasingly concerned about the precedent set by the Assad regime’s tactics – earlier this month, Washington Institute for Near East Policy Lafer Fellow Michael Knights noted “that a lot of governments are losing control of the counterinsurgency…They’re also watching what they see in Syria, and they feel like their air power is what is making the difference.” Agence France Presse (AFP) reported at the end of last month that the Iraqi government had begun using barrel bombs to target civilians. Barrel bombs have also washed up on Israeli beaches and are believed to have originated in Gaza.

 

Israel’s NowForce startup, known for its emergency response apps, has released its SOS app to the Israeli public free of charge. The company chose to make public its emergency system, which has been available to subscription clients until now, following the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers. “In the wake of the grievous incident, in which three Israeli teens were kidnapped, we decided to release this to the general public for free as a way to boost the personal safety of Israelis all around the country,” NowForce spokesperson Julie Zuckerman told the Times of Israel. The application will allow anyone who registers to notify emergency contacts and emergency service organizations. “The app represents the kind of simple and cheap technology, available right now, that can be easily deployed to prevent situations like last week’s kidnappings,” Arik Yekuel, the former head of technology for the Israel Police, told Times of Israel. NowForce says on its website that the service will also be provided free to visitors to Israel.


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