TIME Israel

Netanyahu Weighs Options for Avenging Deaths of Kidnapped Teens

Israeli Premier could go after the Hamas leadership, but analysts advocate targeting Gaza's missile stores

As Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu weighs the options for responding to the murders of three kidnapped Israeli teenagers, there is no shortage of advice—especially after the release, on the day the boys were buried together, of the recording of a call one made to police shortly after they were captured. The tape has only further agitated a grief-stricken Israeli public, increasing pressure on Netanyahu to act.

One option would be for Netanyahu to quietly order the assassination of a leader of Hamas, the militant Palestinian group Israel says carried out the abduction and murders. Israel has carried out such “targeted killings” of Hamas leaders in the past to retaliate against high-profile attacks on civilians. Exhibit A would be Ismail Abu Shanab, the prominent Hamas figure killed in 2003 by a missile fired from a helicopter hovering over the Gaza Strip, two days after a double-suicide bombing of a Jerusalem bus killed 23.

But Netanyahu might exercise restraint. In 1997, during his first term as prime minister, he approved a Mossad operation aimed at killing the Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal on an Amman street, in retaliation for a wave of suicide bombings inside Israel. The plan went awry: The Mossad agents were caught by Jordanian police, and their attempt to poison Meshaal by smearing a poison on his skin left him in a coma. To get the agents back, Netanyahu had to release not only the antidote for the poison used in the botched attempt, but also the jailed spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin (killed in 2004 by an Israeli missile).

“You start these things, you never know where you’re going to end,” said Gabriel Ben-Dor, director of the National Security Studies Center at Haifa University. “The Israeli theory is Hamas does not care about its own people in Gaza being hurt, but they care about themselves. So Israel has been going after their [physical] person at times…But this is a dangerous game to play. The answer could be: You are killing our people, we will kill yours. That’s a dangerous policy to renew.”

And Netanyahu has shown no great appetite of late for such aggressive action. “Netanyahu, despite his fiery rhetoric, is a very cautious man, even a hesitant one. He’s been very very reluctant to expand the sphere of operations beyond what’s absolutely necessary. Which is good from the Israeli point of view…he’s a force for restraint,” says Ben-Dor.

Yet having declared that “Hamas will pay” for the teenagers’ deaths, the premier appears obligated to act. The 34 airstrikes Israeli warplanes delivered on Gaza targets on Monday night were not insignificant, but might be only the overture. Right-wing members of his coalition are pressing for a major assault on Gaza, even including ground troops, according to Hebrew news accounts. “The countdown toward a strike on Gaza basically began two days after the teenagers were kidnapped,’’ military correspondent Alex Fishman writes in the leading daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

The problem is that striking Hamas leaders inside Gaza is likely to lead to an answering salvo from Hamas, which has scores of missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv and beyond. That reality prompts a growing number of analysts, including Ben-Dor, to advocate targeting the missiles themselves: a multi-day air campaign aimed at destroying existing missile stores, launchers, and the factories where the rockets are made. The time is right, they note, because Egypt has finally cut off smuggling lines from the Sinai by which Iran was able to re-supply Hamas in the past.

“The grim ending of the kidnapping, when coupled with Hamas’s dire situation, create an opportunity for an operation that will achieve a strategic outcome that will endure for a long time,” retired Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland argues in a Yedioth opinion column. “It would be best not to squander that on a purely punitive and retaliatory operation.”

But others warn that any strike on Palestinian territory will hurt not only Hamas, but also Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate President of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, both condemned the kidnapping and aided Israel’s investigation, at some cost to his public standing.

“It is in the State of Israel’s interest now to distinguish between Abu Mazen and Hamas,” says columnist Nahum Barnea, also in Yedioth. But Netanyahu has rarely taken into account the Palestinian leader’s political fortunes in the past. In fact, in the wake of the teenagers’ deaths, Abbas has even less room to maneuver than Netanyahu.

“There is criticism against him because he collaborated or cooperated with Israel and because he condemned the terror attack,” notes Kobi Michael, former head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s ministry of strategic affairs. “He is criticized by both sides. He is trapped in a very tragic stalemate.”

Aaron J. Klein reported from Tel Aviv

TIME Iraq

Iraqi Kurds to Vote on Independence

Kurdish Peshmerga forces stand guard in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on June 17, 2014.
Kurdish Peshmerga forces stand guard in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on June 17, 2014. Onur Coban—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

President of Iraq's Kurdish region, already largely autonomous, says the country is already partitioned

The partition of Iraq lurched closer to reality on Tuesday when the head of the country’s already quasi-autonomous Kurdish region publicly declared he would schedule a referendum on independence. Polls and previous votes indicate that the measure is certain to pass, leading, in all likelihood, to an independent Kurdistan on the northern and northeastern borders of Iraq.

“From now on, we won’t hide that that’s our goal,” Massoud Barzani, president of the Regional Kurdistan Government, told the BBC in an interview. “Iraq is effectively partitioned now. Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation the country’s living? It’s not me who will decide on independence. It’s the people.”

The referendum will come in “a matter of months,” Barzani said. He said the Kurdistan parliament must first establish an independent electoral authority, then establish the date for the referendum that Barzani made clear will end with the creation of a state.

“We hope that this state will have the best of relations with all of its neighbors, and we will not be a threat to anyone at all, I’m sure.”

The announcement was a body blow to the frantic political effort to hold the country together after Sunni extremists allied with local tribes took control of much of the country’s west and north, including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Their advance was driven by both the military daring of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, and angry frustration of Iraq’s more moderate Sunni Muslims rebelling against the frankly sectarian rule of Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki, who openly favors the country’s previously oppressed Shiite majority.

Efforts to discard Maliki and form a more inclusive new government based on April election results have so far failed to produce a result. The new parliament adjourned on Tuesday in its first session when Sunni and Kurd lawmakers failed to return from a brief recess.

The Kurds, an ethnic group with its own language and heritage, account for about 17 percent of Iraq’s population of 32 million, and have wanted an independent state for generations. Apart from an empty promise from Woodrow Wilson in the aftermath of World War I, they have come closest in the last 20 years, beginning in 1991, when the United States enforced a no-fly zone over their territory to protect them from Saddam Hussein’s forces in the aftermath of the First Gulf War. Kurdish parties exploited the autonomy to set up their own quasi-state, which became more formal after U.S.-led forces deposed Hussein in 2003. The KRG “regional government” boasts a parliament, military, foreign minister, oil wells and border guards who challenge non-Kurds at roads leading from the rest of Iraq.

Actual independence came within reach when ISIS and its local Sunni allies swept across the country’s north in June. Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, or “those who face death,” swarmed into Kirkuk, an oil-rich city that Kurds regard as their historic capital, and refused to leave. They did the same in 2003, but departed under pressure led by nearby Turkey, which has since become a formidable ally, giving it crucial assistance exporting oil.

In the BBC interview, Barzani appeared prepared to hold Baghdad hostage to Kurdish aspirations. While he did not rule out using Kurdish forces to help repel ISIS, he said they were currently prepared to engage the extremists only if they only if they threaten Kurdish territory. Going beyond that, he said would first require concessions from Baghdad: “If you mean a comprehensive solution in all Iraq, there has to be a political solution and real participation, involving all components of Iraqi society. In that case, we’ll have no hesitation in playing a part.”

“Of course we’ll help all our Arab and Sunni brothers to get out of our crisis,” Barzani said. “But that doesn’t mean we will abandon our goal and our basic project, which is the independence of Kurdistan.”

 

TIME Iraq

What is the Caliphate?

Silhouetted behind the Arabic word "cali
The Arabic word for "caliphate" ABBAS MOMANI—AFP/Getty Images

For centuries, the Caliphate claimed dominion over all the world's Muslims. It was abolished in 1924. Now Sunni extremists say it's back.

Most Westerners have only the dimmest idea of what the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) claims to have set up on the desert flats and cities it controls.

Just what is the Caliphate?

At its most basic, the Caliphate is how Muslims organized themselves for centuries after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. In life, Mohammed led the faith that Muslims believe he channeled directly from God, serving as both religious leader and temporal ruler of the legions drawn to his teachings.

But when the Prophet died in 632 A.D., he left no heir, and the search was on for a successor—which is what caliph means. The caliphate (or succession) is what he rules, the governing body that claims dominion over all believers.

The competition for caliph would split the faith. After Mohammed died, some thought his favorite son-in-law, Ali, should serve. A supporter of Ali was rendered as Shiaat Ali, which became “Shia.”

Others said the caliph should be drawn from those who were especially close to the Prophet, and followed his teachings and example, or Sunnah. They formed Islam’s Sunni tradition.

Shiites stopped selecting caliphs fairly early on, but in the dominant Sunni tradition, the office held ultimate religious and political authority. The combined powers held together empires based wherever the Caliph chose: Baghdad, Damascus or, finally, Istanbul, from which Ottoman sultans governed an empire stretching across three continents for more than 500 years.

But the Ottoman Empire collapsed in World War I, and its remaining land was divided up into the form preferred by the European victors: nation-states. And as it happened, perhaps the most emphatic nation-state in the world, the Republic of Turkey, emerged on its own in the Anatolian peninsula that had been the heart of the empire. Its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, viewed Islam as a rival to the power of the secular state, and literally packed the last caliph out of town on the Orient Express—Abdulmecid Efendi, an urbane scholar who by some accounts was reading the essays of Montaigne when the police came for him. He retired to Paris and Nice.

Decades passed, and the West largely forgot that there ever was a caliphate. But Muslims did not. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 on the desire to re-establish it. Other groups followed, all of them radical in the sense that they sought to upend the world order by ending what one scholar called “the division of Muslim lands into measly pieces which call themselves nations.”

But many moderate Muslims like the idea as well. Some cite the dysfunction of the Arab world as defined by colonial borders, especially compared to Ottoman times. Others note that Catholics have their pope. “The concept of the caliphate is very much alive in the collective memory of society,” a Turkish author, Ali Bulac, once told me. “There is absolutely nothing to keep Muslim society together at the moment.”

Dignity, or its loss, plays a significant role. Osama bin Laden called the attacks of 9/11 “a very small thing compared to this humiliation and contempt for more than 80 years,” counting from the 1924 elimination of the caliphate. And in its statement asserting a restored caliphate on the lands it holds between Syria and Iraq, ISIS appealed to “generations that were drowning in oceans of disgrace, being nursed on the milk of humiliation.”

Even before the caliphate was officially declared June 29, ISIS, which uses social media masterfully, promoted the Twitter hashtag #sykespicotover. (Mark Sykes and Georges Picot being, as Arabs know only too well, the British and French officials who secretly divided up the Middle East in the waning days of WWI.) ISIS supporters also gleefully posted videos of captured earth movers breaching the berm separating Syria and Iraq.

But the group is radical in more ways than one. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS founder who now claims the mantle of the Prophet, calls for a war on the 10 percent of the world’s Muslims who follow the Shia tradition. His foundational screed calls for his soldiers to “greedily drink the blood” of non-believers.

“This is something that is characteristic of our time, to reestablish an ideological empire,” a Turkish scholar named Serif Mardin once told me, a look of distaste crossing his face. “A sweet caliph of ancient times is overwhelmed by this modern military idea. I mean, the caliph is supposed to be a nice guy.” That is one thing the new self-declared caliph does not appear to be.

TIME Israel

Bodies of Missing Israeli Teens Found in West Bank Field

ISRAEL-PALESTINIANS-CONFLICT-KIDNAPPING
Israelis mourns and light candles in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on June 30, 2014, after the announcement that the bodies of the three missing Israeli teenagers were found Oren Ziv—AFP/Getty Images

After 18 days of searching, Israeli soldiers find the remains of the three kidnapped youths, not far from where they were last seen

The bodies of three Israeli teenagers kidnapped while hitchhiking this month were found on Monday afternoon in a field a few miles south of where they were last seen, the Israeli military said.

The discovery brought to a tragic close the intense search and nationwide vigil for Eyal Yifrach, 19; Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaer, both 16, all students at Jewish religious schools located on the occupied West Bank. It also shifted to the foreground the question of how Israel will respond to the deaths, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blames on Hamas, the militant Islamist group. After news that the bodies had been found in an open field north of Hebron, Netanyahu summoned senior ministers to an emergency meeting of the so-called security cabinet.

Netanyahu made some brief remarks at the beginning of the meeting. “They were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by animals,” he said, according to Haaretz. “In the name of the whole of Israel, I ask to tell the dear families — to the mothers, the fathers, the grandmothers and the grandfathers, the brothers and sisters — our hearts are bleeding, the whole nation is crying with them. We will bring the boys to be buried according to Jewish rites.”

“Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay,” the Prime Minister added.

Israel already has struck hard at Hamas, tripling the number of troops on the West Bank in what was the largest military operation in the area in a dozen years. Officials said they wanted to wound Hamas as an organization — by arresting scores of its activists and shuttering its social-service outlets on the West Bank, while pounding militant targets in the Gaza Strip, which Hamas has governed since 2007. In recent days, rockets from the Gaza Strip have been flying toward Israel.

Netanyahu made clear he also wanted to coerce the more moderate Fatah party to dissolve a governing partnership that had been put in place only two weeks earlier, in the form of a cabinet of technocrats at the Palestinian Authority (PA). But the effort to influence Palestinian politics was greeted skeptically on the West Bank, where the Israeli military operation was seen more as a bludgeon than an effort to recover the missing teens. PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads Fatah, was criticized for condemning the kidnapping and directing Palestinian security services to assist in the search.

In Israeli security circles, the investigation turned grim early. The discovery of a burned sedan outside Hebron the morning after the teens went missing was received with foreboding: fires can erase evidence, and Hebron would be the likeliest direction abductors would head. Other directions would take them closer to concentrations of Israeli security, and the city is both the largest on the West Bank, and a stronghold of Hamas. Forensic examination of the vehicle produced spent bullets and traces of blood. The amount could not be detected, however, nor the type, let alone DNA. Absent the presence of bodies, the news was initially withheld from the families. But investigators hypothesized that at least one of the youths had been killed within minutes inside the car, and likely all three.

Authorities also zeroed in on suspects soon after the abduction — two young Palestinians who were known to be active in Hamas, and had disappeared the night the teens went missing. Marwan Quasma, 29, and Amar Abu Eisha, 32, are thought to be in hiding separately. Quasma is from a notoriously militant Hebron clan that, in the past, has reportedly been known to operate beyond the control of Hamas leaders.

U.S. President Barack Obama issued a statement on Monday extending his condolences to the three teenagers’ families. “The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms this senseless act of terror against innocent youth,” he said. “I also urge all parties to refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation. As the Israeli people deal with this tragedy, they have the full support and friendship of the United States.”

— With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Tel Aviv

TIME Iraq

ISIS Militants Declare Islamist ‘Caliphate’

A member loyal to the ISIL waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa
A member of ISIS waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa, Syria on June 29, 2014. Reuters

In a move that may attract more followers, the Sunni extremist group claims to establish dominion over all the world's Muslims

The extremist Sunni group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) on Sunday declared a new caliphate — or an Islamic state to claim dominion over Muslims across the globe — on the territory it holds in the two countries.

An online statement declared the group’s shadowy leader, known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Caliph, or successor to the Prophet Mohammed, who died in 632. The position has been vacant since 1924, when the founder of modern Turkey abolished the office as a remnant of the Ottoman Empire, and bundled the last man to hold it, a bookish Francophile named Abdulmecid Efendi, into exile aboard the Orient Express.

Restoring the caliphate, and with it a measure of the glory that attended Islam’s golden age, has been the stated goal of Sunni Muslim activists for decades, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Hizb ut-Tahrir to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. But al-Baghdadi’s group is the first to assert it. “The time has come for those generations that were drowning in oceans of disgrace, being nursed on the milk of humiliation, and being ruled by the vilest of all people, after their long slumber in the darkness of neglect — the time has come for them to rise,” said the statement.

“They are saying that they are now the center of gravity in global jihad,” says Hayder Al-Khoei, a specialist on Iraq at Chatham House, a London think tank. “They have leap-frogged in that sense al-Qaeda.”

The most immediate tangible effect of the announcement, attributed to ISIS spokesman Mohammed al-Adnani, was to shorten the group’s name. It now wants to be called simply Islamic State, moving past debates over transliterations of the former title, sometimes rendered as ISIL, for Levant instead of Syria, or al-Shams. Social-media sites like Twitter, which the group has used expertly to amplify its message and sense of a strong following, came alive with a new #IS hashtag, while Facebook carried posts claiming to document celebrations — shooting in the air from pickups — in the streets of Raqqa, the Syrian city the Islamist group has held the longest.

Any further impact will depend on public reaction. In the immediate wake of the announcement, skeptics were not hard to find.

The world, after all, is pretty well organized as nation states, the governing concept that admirers of the caliphate reject. “To me,” says al-Khoei, “it sounds like a publicity stunt.”

Even if it is, it might pay off. It’s not hard to imagine Sunday’s announcement, at the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, inspiring young Muslims already inclined toward jihad. “If they’re a caliphate now, a lot of people, possibly living in America or Europe — the ones who are already radicalized and inclined to join them, it’s more of an impetus,” al-Khoei tells TIME. “Maybe the publicity stunt will affect recruiting in that sense. There’ll be more eager, young volunteers excited by the sense that it’s here now, it’s a reality now.”

The fact is, a certain nostalgia for the caliphate lingers in much of the Muslim community — and not only among fundamentalists, or so-called takfiri groups like ISIS that see Shi‘ite Muslims as apostates. Catholics still have their Pope, these mainstream believers point out, and Eastern Orthodox Christians their patriarch.

But there are Caliphs and there are Caliphs. And while many, like the current Christian leaders, preach peace, the summons from the Mesopotamian desert Sunday was to “greedily drink the blood” of nonbelievers according to an early translation posted online:

“The sun of jihad has risen … The glad tidings of good are shining. Triumph looms on the horizon. The signs of victory have appeared. Here the flag of the Islamic State, the flag of tawhīd (monotheism), rises and flutters. Its shade covers land from Aleppo to Diyala.

… So rush O Muslims and gather around your khalīfah [caliphate], so that you may return as you once were for ages, kings of the earth and knights of war. Come so that you may be honored and esteemed, living as masters with dignity. Know that we fight over a religion that Allah promised to support. We fight for an ummah [global Muslim community] to which Allah has given honor, esteem, and leadership, promising it with empowerment and strength on the earth. Come O Muslims to your honor, to your victory. By Allah, if you disbelieve in democracy, secularism, nationalism, as well as all the other garbage and ideas from the west, and rush to your religion and creed, then by Allah, you will own the earth, and the east and west will submit to you. This is the promise of Allah to you. This is the promise of Allah to you.”

TIME Middle East

Palestinians Warn Israel That Crackdown on Hamas May Backfire

Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian man during a search for three missing Israeli teens, feared abducted in the West Bank last week, in the village of Beit Kahil near the West Bank city of Hebron on June 21, 2014.
Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian man during a search for three missing Israeli teens, feared abducted in the West Bank last week, in the village of Beit Kahil near the West Bank city of Hebron on June 21, 2014. Majdi Mohammed—AP

Warnings that a search for missing teens could have unintended consequences

Shortly after three Israeli teenagers disappeared in the West Bank late on June 12, the effort to locate them shifted from a search to a broader campaign aimed at punishing Hamas.

Israeli officials say the militant Palestinian faction is responsible for the abductions of Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Fraenkel, but no one pretends the thousands of Israeli soldiers who swarmed the West Bank for the last two weeks as part of “Operation Brothers’ Keeper” were only looking for them. The troops also swept up 371 activists and politicians, shut down 64 social welfare operations maintained by Hamas and, along the way, made every effort to thwart the only weeks-old unity pact bringing together Hamas and the more secular, peace-oriented Fatah faction.

“The mission has developed beyond the primary target of bringing the boys home to striking a substantial blow to Hamas,” Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli military, said last week. Israeli troops were targeting “all levels of Hamas, from tactical operatives to its institutions all the way up to its strategic leadership,” Lerner said. “They must pay the price for openly declaring their intent to carry out such attacks.”

But Hamas is not the only casualty of the Israeli campaign. Among the approximately 400 Palestinians detained by Israel were 58 earlier released from prison in exchange for another captive, Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier abducted by Hamas in 2009 and freed after five years. Most of the 1,027 freed prisoners were exiled overseas or to the Gaza Strip, but 110 were permitted to live on the West Bank. Taking a majority of them into custody on grounds of violating the conditions of their release serves as a drag on the political fortunes of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who critics say created incentive for future kidnappings in the bargain that freed Shalit. One of those released for Shalit turned out to be behind the last major unsolved case in the West Bank, the highway shooting of a senior police official on his way to Passover dinner in April, according to Israel’s domestic security agency.

“We have reversed the equation of ‘you kidnap, and we release terrorists,’ to one of a kidnapping followed by terrorists going back to serve out their sentences,” Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, told the mothers of the missing teens on Wednesday.

Israeli officials say the teens’ abduction gave the country’s military license to scour West Bank with more resources – triple the usual number of troops–than have been deployed there in a dozen years. But the home searches, flying checkpoints and roadblocks are aggravating tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, a situation that historically generates support for Hamas at the expense of the moderate Palestinian Authority, which has been helping in the search. On Sunday night, after Israeli troops entered the city for another round post-midnight raids, residents gathered outside a Ramallah base and hurled stones at its shuttered doors, shouting “collaborators.”

“Strikes, deaths and Israeli brutality will only bring out resistance from the people to end the occupation,” said Fairouz Shram, a secretary from the northern West Bank city of Jenin. “The Palestinian Authority is also loosing credibility and support from the people because of the PA’s lack of authority and ability to protect its people within the West Bank as seen during Israelis latest invasions.”

Though Israel moved to ratchet back its West Bank campaign this week in anticipation of the weekend start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Palestinians say a good deal of damage is already done. The number of Palestinians killed during Operation Brothers’ Keeper –six, according to the Palestinian Authority–is double the number of missing Israelis. The total includes a young refugee camp resident who has been declared brain dead, and a man who suffered a heart attack during a home search and was prevented by soldiers from being taken to the hospital, according to the PA.

“What will I tell the families of the three Palestinian teens who were killed?” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas asked Israeli reporters, when the death toll stood at three. “Why were they killed? We’re human beings, just like you. Can the Israeli government demonstrate the same feelings and say they are human beings and deserve to live?”

Common ground—always difficult to find in the intractable Israeli-Palestinian—is growing even scarcer since the abductions. Inside Israel, the search for the teens has unified Jewish society with an almost painful ardency. In the West Bank, however, Palestinians have been pre-occupied by the hardships imposed by the search—which both local and international human rights groups warn may veer into “collective punishment”—and its expansion into a general crackdown on Hamas. Facts that Israelis take as ominous—there’s been no ransom demand or proof of life since the disappearance—are viewed by many Palestinians as absence of evidence a kidnapping even occurred.

“Who knows,” says Muna Zaghiar, 42, of Ramallah, “maybe there was never any kidnapping and this is all part of Israelis tactics to put away Hamas and dissolve it’s support.”

In the search for the missing teens, the alternative explanations are encouraged by Israel’s effort to leverage the incident to alter the makeup of Palestinian leadership. After Abbas publicly condemned the kidnappings at a high-profile meeting in Saudi Arabia last week, Netanyahu pushed him to disavow the unity government with Hamas as well. “If he is truly committed to peace and to fighting terrorism, then logic and common sense mandate that he break his pact with Hamas,” Netanyahu said.

As time passes, security officials warn that the chances of finding the missing teens alive steadily diminishes. But analysts say the net effect of their disappearance—and all that has followed—has been a boost in sympathies toward Hamas, the very organization Israel is trying to diminish. “What we can see is that the Palestinians in general are very sympathetic to the Palestinians who are either in prison or taken to jail or arrested, and that in itself is an indicator that it boosts Hamas’ popularity,” Jamil Rabah, a Ramallah pollster, tells TIME. “And it seems it did.”

—Additional reporting by Rami Nazzal in Ramallah

TIME Iraq

Iraq Breakup Made Easier by Turkey’s Détente With Kurds

Peshmerga fighters provide security at the last checkpoint outside of Mosul which is currently under control of ISIS militants, on June 14 in Mosul.
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters provide security at the last checkpoint outside of Mosul on June 14. Sebastiano Tomada—Getty Images

The neighbor that a decade ago was most intent upon keeping Iraq together is now allied with its most ardent separatists—the Kurds—removing a key obstacle to the dismemberment of Iraq as Sunni Muslim extremists gain territory

In March 2003, U.S. troops parachuted into Iraq’s north and took up positions in the most fraught conflict then going in that part of the country: A looming battle between Turkey and the Kurds of northern Iraq. Turkey had 200,000 troops to its southeastern border, fearing not the armies of Saddam Hussein but the aspirations of an ethnic minority that openly pined for independence – and was angling to use the US invasion of Iraq as an excuse to declare it. Turkey feared an independent Kurdistan in Iraq would enflame the separatist passions among its own Kurdish minority, a situation so fraught that the Pentagon set up a special command specifically to deal with it. Its stated mission: “deconfliction.”

Eleven years later, Iraq’s Kurds have finally acted on their plan – sending forces to take the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk, known as the “Kurdish Jerusalem,” and declaring the end of Iraq as the world now knows it. And what did Turkey do? Wish them well. “The Kurds of Iraq can decide for themselves the name and type of entity they are living in,” a spokesman for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party told a Kurdish news outlet.

The transformation of Turkey from enemy to key ally of Iraqi Kurdistan is almost complete, removing a key obstacle to the dismemberment of Iraq as Sunni Muslim extremists gain territory in a nation ruled by a sectarian Shiite Muslim government.

No longer does Turkish nationalism serve to hold Iraq’s borders in place with pressure from the north. Instead, a country founded in 1924 as perhaps the world’s fiercest assertion of the nation-state – “Devlet,” which means “state,” is a first name in Turkey –- has aligned itself with a separatist movement dressed in the clothes of a sovereign nation. The Kurdistan Regional Government, formed after the U.S. invasion, has its own flag, prime minister, military, oil wells, border checkpoints and foreign minister.

“It’s a fact that the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq is the best ally of Turkey in the Middle East,” says Dogu Ergil, a political science professor at Istanbul’s Fatih University who specializes in what Turks call “the Kurdish question.” “Once it was a formidable potential enemy, because Turkey feared a basically independent Iraqi Kurdistan would be an attraction center for the Kurds of Turkey. But it proved that it’s not so, and Iraqi Kurds could be the best economic partners of Turkey.”

Trade between Turkey and Iraq’s Kurdish region stands at more than $8 billion a year, twice the business Turkey does with the entire rest of Iraq. And the figure will rise as the Kurds pump oil across Turkey via a pipeline to a Mediterranean port, a physical tether between the newfound allies built despite Baghdad’s strenuous objections. “But as we see, “ Ergil notes, “Baghdad is a paper tiger.”

The relationship works both ways, says Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The Kurds are also pivoting to Turkey. In Iraq they made a decision around 2007 that they would rather have Turkey as a long term protector than the Arabs.”

That decision transformed a longtime threat into a protector, but Turkey’s security situation was also improved by the deal. Kurds are an ethnic group that Woodrow Wilson once promised a nation of their own, but ended up divided instead among others — Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Once seen as a threat to the sovereignty of each (but especially Turkey, which has the most Kurds), they now are acting as a buffer. Because their turf abuts the Turkish border in both Syria and Iraq, the Kurdish region provides a barrier of sorts, insulating Turkey from the worst effects of the fighting, including flows of refugees. The checkpoints where hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fleeing Mosul, which was overrun by the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria on June 10, stood at the entrance to Iraqi Kurdistan, not Turkey.

“If not for the Kurds, Turkey would neighbor ISIS,” says Cagaptay. “I think this has added a political element to the Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.”

The improved relationship extends to electoral politics. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last year announced a peace deal with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, Turkish Kurds who had fought a separatist war for decades. According to leaked documents, as part of the bargain Turkey’s largest Kurdish political party agreed to back Erdogan’s bid for a more powerful presidency, cementing his hegemony in a reworked constitution.

“But the new approach to Iraqi Kurdistan has reached beyond Erdogan to Turkish elites,” notes Cagaptay. “You see it in the thinking of diplomats at the foreign ministry, in the spy chief.” Whatever challenges lay ahead for Kurds gaining acceptance in Turkish society–and those challenges are substantial—the transformation of Ankara’s foreign policy could alter the the entire Middle East.

“What is really shifting right now is Kurdish reality on the ground in Iraq and Syria,” Cagaptay says. “They’re using the civil war as an opportunity window to have Turkey recognize their de-facto independence.”

TIME Israel

Israel Holds Breath Over Three Teens Kidnapped on West Bank

West Bank Israeli Teens Kidnapping
Right-wing activists protest opposite of the Israeli Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem on June 17, 2014, calling on the government to punish Palestinians until three kidnapped Israeli teenagers are returned safely Nir Alon—ZUMA Press/Corbis

The human drama of the missing teens galvanizes Israelis as the political fallout from earlier kidnappings haunts Netanyahu

Israel remained galvanized by the kidnapping of three yeshiva students Tuesday, five days after they were apparently taken hostage by Palestinian militants as the teenagers hitchhiked home from West Bank settlements.

No group has taken responsibility for the apparent abduction, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blames Hamas, the militant Islamist party that this month entered into a unity government with Fatah, the secular Palestinian party that controls the West Bank — and which quietly cooperates with Israel to prevent such events.

The timing has tangled the episode in strands of domestic, international and factional politics, including recriminations against Netanyahu, who critics say has encouraged abductions by paying lavishly for the return of previous Israeli captives, including freeing 1,027 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli custody in return for a single soldier, Gilad Shalit, in 2011 after five years in captivity.

But the human drama holds center stage. Israeli media speak of little else beyond Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar, both 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19, and the search for them. Tens of thousands gathered at the Western Wall in Jerusalem to pray for their safe return. News programs took on the feeling of a vigil.

“He’s a sweet boy, he’s full of joy and happiness. He’s a fun kid,” Ittael Fraenkel, the aunt of Naftali, who also holds U.S. citizenship, told reporters in a conference call on Monday afternoon. The call was arranged by the Israel Project, a nonprofit that exists to promote Israel, which also circulated downloads about the presumed captives: Eyal performing a song he wrote for a cousin’s wedding, Naftali playing ping-pong. The effort reflected both the public appetite to know more about the youngsters, and presumably an effort to enlist the sympathy of their abductors.

The three were last seen around 10 p.m. on June 12 in a cluster of Jewish settlements south of Jerusalem known as Gush Etzion, where they attended religious school, or yeshiva. Israeli authorities presume they were either lured or forced into a car, and taken south to the vicinity of Hebron, a large Palestinian city that has long been a Hamas stronghold. At 10:25 p.m., one of the youths dialed a police emergency number and whispered, “We’ve been kidnapped,” but the call was at first dismissed as a prank.

When the youths were found to be missing, Israel flooded the area with troops, and began arresting more than 100 Hamas activists. On Monday evening, Netanyahu called for patience, “We are in the middle of a complex operation,” he said. “We need to be prepared for the fact it may take more time.”

Privately, Israelis feared the worst. Though Shalit was held for five years by Hamas, it was in the Gaza Strip, a walled enclave where militants have relative freedom of movement. The West Bank is another story: both Israel’s domestic security agency, Shin Bet, and the security services of the Palestinian Authority maintain elaborate intelligence networks in the territory, with informants likely numbering in the thousands.

And while in this case those intelligence networks failed to detect the plot, paradoxically, they may actually endanger the lives of the captives. In two previous kidnappings of Israelis, the captives were killed shortly after their abduction, out of fear they would be detected. Investigators say kidnappers know how difficult it is to keep a captive secret in the informant-riddled West Bank, and act accordingly, understanding as well that Israel will also trade prisoners for the remains of a hostage. But Israeli authorities on the West Bank in the recent past have also found at least one secret room apparently built to hold more than one captive for a lengthy period of time.

Still, the political toll on Netanyahu was mounting Tuesday. Analysts lambasted him for calling out Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose security services frequently detain Hamas operatives, and for linking the abduction to tangential political affairs. On Monday night, he said: “I call on those in the international community that condemn us for building in Jerusalem to clearly condemn this kidnapping.”

Critics pointed out that the unity deal with Hamas — which has no ministers in the transitional government — has no evident bearing on the kidnapping plot: Israeli authorities had detected and thwarted scores of plots — which investigators refer to as “bargaining attacks” — before the unity deal was sealed. The more likely variable, the critics point out, is the many prisoners Netanyahu has released in exchange for earlier captives. “As the person who freed … Gilad Shalit, [Netanyahu] cannot deny that he gave terror organizations a serious boost of encouragement to try to abduct additional Israelis, both soldiers and civilians,” columnist Shimon Shiffer wrote in the best-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth, which is frequently critical of the Prime Minister. “With his own hands, he showed them the road to success.”

— With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Tel Aviv

TIME Iraq

Extremists in Iraq Continue March Toward Baghdad

IRAQ-UNREST-TIKRIT
An image grab taken from a propaganda video uploaded on June 8, 2014, by the jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) allegedly shows ISIL militants firing from the back of a vehicle near the central Iraqi city of Tikrit. AFP/Getty Images

Militant Sunni forces are taking territory with lightning speed, moving toward the ultimate goal of establishing a new Islamic Caliphate

As Islamist extremists captured Tikrit, a major city in Iraq’s Sunni heartland, just a day after taking Mosul, analysts offered sobering assessments of a fundamentalist militant force whose ambitions may no longer be the stuff of fantasy.

Hardened by years of battle in neighboring Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is routing the forces of a modern nation-state and gathering land with the ultimate goal of establishing an alternate form of governance, an Islamic caliphate.

“This is not a terrorism problem anymore,” says Jessica Lewis, an expert on ISIS at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank. “This is an army on the move in Iraq and Syria, and they are taking terrain.”

In capturing Tikrit, famed as the hometown of Saddam Hussein, Islamist militants whom the secular dictator had not tolerated were moving south down Iraq’s main highway toward Baghdad. Lewis cited reports that Abu Ghraib, the city just to the west of the capital, was also under assault from ISIS forces that have held Fallujah and much of Ramadi since January.

“We are using the word encircle,” Lewis tells TIME. “They have shadow governments in and around Baghdad, and they have an aspirational goal to govern. I don’t know whether they want to control Baghdad, or if they want to destroy the functions of the Iraqi state, but either way the outcome will be disastrous for Iraq.”

There was little argument on that point on Wednesday among the American specialists who came to know the country well during the almost nine years U.S. forces remained there, yet faced no opposition as militarily organized as ISIS. The Sunni extremists at the time were known to the U.S. military as AQI, for al-Qaeda in Iraq.

“They were great terrorists,” says Douglas Ollivant, a former Army Cavalry officer who later handled Iraq for the White House National Security Council. “They made great car bombs. But they were lousy line infantry, and if you got them in a firefight, they’d die. They have now repaired that deficiency.”

Like other analysts, Ollivant credits the civil war in Syria for the striking improvement in battlefield ability. “You fight Hizballah for a couple of years, and you either die or you get a lot better,” he says. “And these guys got a lot better.”

Lewis, who was a U.S. Army intelligence officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, calls ISIS “an advanced military leadership.” “They have incredible command and control and they have a sophisticated reporting mechanism from the field that can relay tactics and directives up and down the line,” he said. “They are well-financed, and they have big sources of manpower, not just the foreign fighters, but also prisoner escapees.” In Mosul, many of the estimated 1,200 prisoners released as the city fell were thought to be Islamist militants.

“They are highly skilled in urban guerrilla warfare while the new Iraqi army simply lacks tactical competence,” says Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, who monitors jihadist activity for the Middle East Forum. In a battle that is fought largely on sectarian lines — Iraq’s government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has championed the country’s Shiite majority — Iraqi officials have solicited Shiite militias to engage the ISIS, “though they prove to be equally incompetent,” al-Tamimi adds.

Ollivant, now a fellow at the New America Foundation, says that despite the thunderclap of Mosul’s collapse after only four days of fighting, it’s not yet apparent how formidable ISIS really is. The windfall of military materiel left behind by fleeing Iraqi forces—especially simple weapons and ammunition, because they do not require complex maintenance—are significant, but less so than the group’s operational depth: “Is it holding what it’s taking or is it just kind of sweeping through and moving on to the next thing, leaving only a skeletal force behind, that would be easy enough to push out,” says Ollivant. “Or is it strong enough to hold the territory it’s taken? Those are the two options. One is embarrassing, the other is catastrophic.”

But if ISIS can in fact hold the area it has overrun, it may well be able to fulfill its stated mission of restoring the Caliphate, the governing structure for the Sunni Muslim world that inherited authority from the Prophet Mohammed. “This is of great significance,” according to an assessment released Wednesday by The Soufan Group, a private security company. A restored Caliphate will attract “many more disaffected young people … from all over the Muslim world, especially the Middle East, lured by nostalgia for al-Khulafa al-Islamiya (the Islamic Caliphate), which remains a potent motivator for Sunni extremists.”

Restoring the Caliphate was the stated goal of Osama bin Laden in creating al-Qaeda, but the terror group has never operated militarily. “It’s ISIS that will build the Caliphate, not al-Qaeda,” says al-Tamimi.

The entire concept of the Caliphate remains obscure to most Westerners. It has not existed since the Ottoman Empire (which claimed dominion over the world’s Muslims) was pulled apart after World War I. The European powers divided the Middle East into their preferred system of governance–nation states–though that arrangement lately seems under threat, especially in Syria and Iraq.

Thomas Ricks, who covered the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq for the Washington Post and named his bestselling account of the subject Fiasco, says the current crisis in Iraq was set in motion over a decade ago. “I think that the U.S. invasion fundamentally unbalanced Iraq, and the Middle East,” Ricks tells TIME in an e-mail. “By removing Sunni power in Baghdad we increased Iran’s influence in the country–and so provoked a Sunni backlash. Big picture, I think we may be seeing the beginning of the re-drawing of the map, this time done by residents of the region instead of by British and French diplomats.”

With reporting from Hania Mourtada in Beirut

TIME Iraq

Iraq’s Second Largest City Falls to Extremists

Iraqis fleeing violence in the Nineveh province wait in their vehicles at a Kurdish checkpoint in Aski Kalak, 25 miles West of Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on June 10, 2014.
Iraqis fleeing violence in Nineveh province wait in their vehicles at a Kurdish checkpoint in Aski Kalak, 25 miles west of Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on June 10, 2014. Safin Hamed—AFP/Getty Images

Soldiers in Mosul threw down their guns and stripped off their uniforms as Sunni insurgents approached and raised their black flags on Tuesday, allowing the city to fall after just four days of fighting. Terrified residents were streaming out of the city

The fall of Iraq’s second largest city to Islamist extremists Tuesday sends an alarming message about the deterioration of a country where the U.S. spent eight years, 4,500 lives and $1.7 trillion. Mosul, a city of 1.8 million located in the far north of the country, long cultivated a reputation as a military town. But Iraqi soldiers threw down their guns and stripped off their uniforms as the insurgents approached on Tuesday, according to officials stunned by the collapse of its defenses.

“When the battle got tough in the city of Mosul, the troops dropped their weapons and abandoned their posts, making it an easy prey for the terrorists,” Osama Nuajaifi, the speaker of Iraq’s parliament who hails from Mosul, said during a news conference in Baghdad. “Everything is fallen. It’s a crisis. Having these terrorist groups control a city in the heart of Iraq threatens not only Iraq but the entire region.”

The fall of Mosul after only four days of fighting speaks volumes about both the state of Iraqi forces and the depth of the sectarian division at the bleeding heart of the nation’s ongoing crisis: the population of Mosul is mostly Sunni, and the central government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is widely criticized as favoring the country’s Shi‘ite majority. Al-Maliki is likely to remain in office after the April 30 elections left him with the largest share of votes and negotiating chiefly with other Shi‘ite parties to form a new governing coalition.

The insurgents — who raised black flags over parts of the city on Tuesday — are Sunni extremists known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a group al-Qaeda disowned as too extreme.

“Iraq is undergoing a difficult stage,” al-Maliki said at a televised news conference, after asking parliament to declare a state of emergency. The Premier confirmed that militants controlled much of Mosul, and that soldiers had deserted their posts. News reports said militants had overrun the airport, gaining access to military helicopters, and had cranes moving blast walls — erected as protection against terrorist car bombs — to reinforce their positions and block roads against a counterattack. Police stations had been overrun and set afire, and the doors of at least one jail flung open: the Associated Press quoted residents who saw prisoners running down the street still wearing their yellow jump suits.

Terrified residents were streaming out of the city — the International Organization for Migration reports 500,000 people have left their homes since Saturday — and there were reports that water and electricity were cut off. On its Twitter account, ISIS gloated about seizing arms and vehicles abandoned by the city’s supposed defenders. Elsewhere in the country, its fighters have been spotted driving humvees captured from government forces in previous encounters.

The situation was dire in more ways than one. Besides its symbolic importance as Iraq’s second largest city — and the historic home of the country’s oil industry — Mosul has crucial strategic significance. It sits near both Turkey and the largely autonomous Kurdish zone of northern Iraq, but most important, it functions as Iraq’s most prominent doorway to Syria, where ISIS emerged as one of the main rebel forces arrayed against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Led by an Iraqi, ISIS has ranged freely across an international border that separates the countries far more on maps than in reality. The conflicts raging in both Syria and Iraq are grounded in sectarian identities — Sunni vs. Shi‘ite — that have in crucial ways overridden national identities. The terms of the ancient conflict steepen the challenge Baghdad faces in subduing the insurrection that currently has divided Iraq between east and west. ISIS and its Sunni allies control much of Anbar province, including portions of Ramadi and much of Fallujah, which lay due west of the capital. Mosul, though also home to Shi‘ite and Kurdish populations, remained restive for most of the U.S. occupation, and was a battleground between al-Maliki’s troops and forces associated with al-Qaeda as recently as 2008, when the Premier promised a “decisive” battle for the city.

On Tuesday, al-Maliki was preparing again. Despite warnings from analysts that the insurrection was at heart a political problem that might only be worsened by a heavy-handed military response, al-Maliki announced his government had created a Crisis Unit and was preparing a counteroffensive that, according to one report, would include civilian volunteers armed by his government. Nuajaifi, the parliament speaker, warned, “They will reach every corner of Iraq if it doesn’t stop.”

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