Analysis: Hamas may yet be consumed by its own inferno
IDF troops hunt for the abducted boys (Photo: IDF)
A kidnap of Israeli civilians or soldiers could have happened at any time in recent years.
Since Hamas released IDF Sergeant Gilad Shalit in October 2011, in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, the Shin Bet has detected 101 kidnap attempts by Palestinian organisations.
Two have succeeded: the abduction and murder of soldier Tomer Hazan last September; and the kidnap of Naftali Frenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrach last Thursday night.
For the Palestinians, the kidnap of Israelis is seen as a major lever with which to pressure the Jewish state and force the release of jailed prisoners. Two weeks ago, as the cabinet debated a proposed law that would prevent the future release of terrorist murderers in prisoner exchanges, Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo - who opposes such a law - sketched an eerily prescient scenario. "What if, next week, three 14-year-old girls are kidnapped from one of the settlements?" he asked. "Will you say then there's a law and we won't release terrorists?"
But while the motivation to kidnap Israelis, particularly soldiers, remains high, it is still unclear whether this particular abduction was carried out with the specific blessing and direction of the Hamas leadership in Gaza.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressly said on Sunday that the perpetrators were "Hamas members" and, while lambasting the Islamist organisation, stopped short of directly blaming it in this case. This tallies with the view that the kidnappers, who seem to have been experienced and disciplined operators, could well have been acting independently and without direct contact with any headquarters in Gaza.
There are two possible explanations for this. The first could be the realisation by the Palestinians that their communication networks have been compromised by Israeli intelligence and therefore the operational cells in the West Bank are acting independently. This has made it much more difficult for Israel to detect the location of the kidnappers.
The second - and not necessarily mutually exclusive - reason is that the kidnappers may have put their leadership in a difficult position.
While not officially giving up on the "armed struggle", Hamas is interested now in a degree of legitimisation following its unity deal with Fatah. Together they have formed a new Palestinian government and plan to hold elections late this year. Despite its bellicose statements this week, Hamas has not responded to Israel's operation against its infrastructure in the West Bank and has prevented missile launches from Gaza.
Hamas has to continue encouraging the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers - if it was to do otherwise it would lose popular support. But it needs a period of calm now to consolidate its political gains.
On the other hand, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' surprisingly vehement condemnation of the kidnapping on Wednesday at a conference in Jeddah - he said that the perpetrators were "destroying" the Palestinians and once the organisation behind it is identified, they will be "reckoned with" - is a signal that he may not be so enamoured with the agreement he only recently signed.
The Fatah-Hamas unity deal was in trouble before last Thursday's abduction. Both sides were finding it very difficult to share both power and responsibilities. Mr Abbas certainly does not regret that Israel is dismantling Hamas' organisational infrastructure in the West Bank and may find the kidnapping a useful excuse to back out of the unity deal.