This week, Israel was shaken by the horrific discovery of the bodies of three young teenagers, buried under a shallow pile of rocks just north of the city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank. Naftali (16), Gilad (16) and Edal (19) had been kidnapped near the Gush Etzion settlements on June 12 while hitchhiking home from their yeshivas, and it is suspected that they were fatally shot shortly thereafter. For days now, the country has been transfixed by a sense of collective mourning and shared sympathy for the boys’ families.
As was to be expected, Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately blamed Hamas for the killings and ordered a large-scale crackdown on the occupied territories, followed by the bombing of over 30 sites in Gaza just hours after the discovery of the boys’ bodies. Since the kidnapping on June 12, Israeli violence has left at least seven Palestinians dead, including 10-year-old Ali and 15-year-old Mohammed, and more than 400 arrested and thrown into administrative detention. On Wednesday, the body of another Palestinian boy was found dumped in the woods just hours after being abducted in East Jerusalem. It is suspected that 16-year-old Mohammed was kidnapped and burned to death by Jewish extremists in revenge for the deaths of the Israeli teenagers. His body was so badly charred that investigators refused to let his father see it. Fierce riots broke out in East Jerusalem on Friday following Mohammed’s funeral.
In recent weeks, the Israeli and international press have aggressively covered the disappearance of Naftali, Gilad and Edal — and rightly so. The deaths of the young Israelis undoubtedly warrants widespread media attention, while their mourning families deserve heartfelt sympathy. The moment we stop caring about the politically-motivated murder of innocent youths is the day we lose all claims to a human conscience. It is precisely for this reason that world leaders and the international media should now join their appropriate sense of disgust over the kidnapping of the Israeli teenagers with unambiguous sympathy and unequivocal support for the families of the hundreds of young Palestinians who have fallen victim to lethal Israeli aggression over the years.
According to the Palestine branch of Defence for Children International, an independent NGO with branches in over 40 countries, more than 1.400 Palestinian children have been killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since the start of the second intifada in 2000. While exceptional cases — like the “unlawful killing” of two Palestinian teenagers by Israeli soldiers on Nakhba Day in May this year — do make it into the international headlines, the average Palestinian victim of lethal Israeli violence amounts to little more than a nameless statistic in the unread annual reports of a handful of human rights organizations. Other, less lethal and more structural forms of violence against Palestinians tend to go unreported altogether. In truth, few people in the West — let alone in Israel itself — really care for Palestinian suffering at all. That in itself is an affront to our common humanity.
But selective sympathy is hardly the only problem that the people of Palestine face today. In addition to an unjustifiable lack of international interest in the military, religious and structural violence they endure on a daily basis, the Palestinians are now suffering Israeli vengeance on a collective scale. For what it’s still worth, the Fourth Geneva Convention considers collective punishment to be a war crime — and for good reason. On its rampages through Europe in WWII, the Wehrmacht would often burn down homes and round up or execute random villagers in revenge for the deaths of German troops or the resistance put up by local populations. “Never again,” we used to say. Yet today, the Israeli government is resorting to similar tactics of collective punishment in the occupied territories, resorting to home raids and demolitions, mass arrests and aerial bombardments of densely-populated civilian areas to stamp out all resistance to the occupying forces — militant and non-violent alike.
And so the people of Palestine currently find themselves caught between selective sympathy from the international community and collective punishment at the hands of the Israeli military. At the same time, it is clear that neither occurs in a vacuum, and the latter in particular is undeniably driven by political opportunism on the part of the Israeli government. Local analysts claim that Netanyahu is not very keen on instigating a drawn-out conflict with Hamas, but there are at least two reasons why an escalation of armed conflict would be inevitable (and even desirable) for his government in the short-term. First, there is the need to stem or at least co-opt the embarrassing groundswell of overt racism in Israeli society. And then there is the unique opportunity to drive a wedge in the Fatah-Hamas unity government that was sworn in just a month ago, thereby continuing Netanyahu’s tested divide-and-rule diplomacy.
The first point is the most self-evident: Israel is simply frothing at the mouth with racist bigotry and anti-Arab sentiment right now. Earlier this week, groups of far-right extremists went on a rampage through Jerusalem chanting “death to Arabs!” and looking for Arab Israeli civilians to beat up, while settlers have intensified their assaults on Palestinians in Hebron and elsewhere. Meanwhile, a Facebook group full of racist anti-Arab commentary called “the nation of Israel demands revenge” managed to gather 35.000 followers — many of them soldiers — in just two days, through explicit calls for vengeance against random Palestinians. An influential rabbi even urged the government to “turn the IDF into an army of avengers, ‘which will not stop at 300 Philistine foreskins’.”
Since then, numerous Palestinian youths have faced brutal violence from Israeli soldiers and citizens alike: an angry mob of Jews was caught on camera assaulting a young Palestinian man on a public bus, and a 15-year-old Palestinian-American boy was severely lynched by Israeli police and is currently still held in prison without charge. In this context of rampant racism, Netanyahu’s firm response to the death of the three teenagers must be seen as first and foremost serving a domestic political purpose. A secular hardliner himself, Netanyahu can ill-afford to be seen to waver in the face of an overt “Palestinian provocation” (i.e., the kidnapping of the three teenagers), much less be outflanked on the right on issues of national security.
At the same time, the overt racism emanating from civil society poses a major challenge to Israeli officials, who are acutely aware of the fact that negative PR could further erode the support of Israel’s key allies in Europe and the US. Part of a longer-term development going back to the expulsion of 8.000 Israeli settlers during Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005, and more recently finding its expression in a doubling of hate crimes and the rise of the so-called “Price Tag” movement of racist and religious vandalism, the rise of Jewish extremism goes hand-in-hand with growing anti-government sentiment among settlers and the ultra-orthodox — giving Netanyahu a double incentive to try to appease and co-opt the racist anger. By aligning himself with popular outrage over the kidnapping and channeling the country’s deep-seated hatred of everything Arab (or gentile, for that matter) into a violent crackdown on Hamas militants and ordinary Palestinians alike, Netanyahu may succeed in deflecting some of the far-right’s anti-government sentiment and overt racism, diverting it back into the slightly less embarrassing form of secular “Israeli nationalism” espoused by his Likud party and the army (which obviously serves the exact same purpose: to legitimate the occupation and the idea of the Jewish State).
Beyond these internal political motivations, however, there is another, more strategic concern that is likely to animate the government’s heavy-handed response to the killings. For years, Netanyahu’s policy towards the Palestinians has been driven by a carefully crafted divide-and-rule strategy that seeks to continually segment the Palestinian population between Christians and Muslims, between inhabitants of Gaza and the West Bank, and between Arab Israelis and Palestinians living in PA-controlled territory — all while relentlessly prying apart the Palestinian leadership in order to undermine its bid for statehood at the United Nations. By skillfully keeping the militants from Hamas and the moderates from Fatah at loggerheads with one another, the Israelis have long prevented the emergence of a unified Palestinian front and thus kept their enemy internally divided. Stoking the flames of Palestinian extremism through economic sanctions and carefully targeted attacks on Hamas militants and officials has always been a core component of that approach. By continuously co-opting Fatah and using every opportunity imaginable to provoke Hamas, the chances of Palestinian unity were greatly diminished.
Some of that seemed to change in April this year, however, when Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation pact that eventually led to the swearing in of a unity government on June 2. Ever since, the Netanyahu government has been doing everything in its power to frustrate the proper functioning of the pact, even barring Ministers from Gaza from entering the West Bank for their swearing-in ceremony. As Sharif Nashashibi remarked for Al Jazeera last month, “Israel has made clear that it will do all it can to thwart Palestinian unity. It has imposed economic sanctions on the PA, refuses to negotiate with the new government, and has urged the international community not to recognise it.” In this context, the disappearance of the three Israeli teenagers on June 12 played right into the hands of the Israeli government: it gave Netanyahu the perfect justification for a renewed crackdown on Hamas and a political justification to drive a wedge in the fledgling Palestinian unity government.
While some of its officials openly praised the kidnappings, Hamas neither confirmed nor denied any involvement — and while it is undoubtedly possible that its leader did indeed give the order for this heinous crime, it is equally possible that the suspected kidnappers acted independently of Hamas’ command structures. None of this, however, really matters to the Israeli government, for whom the triple kidnapping simply presented itself as a convenient opportunity to re-establish a nationalist pro-government discourse while furthering the strategic aims of the occupation. Within days, the Israeli military had moved in to detain hundreds of Hamas leaders while stepping up the pressure on the moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The divide-and-rule strategy appears to be working. While Hamas has openly called for a third intifada in response to the Israeli crackdown, Abbas has roundly condemned the kidnappers and has pledged the continuation of Palestinian-Israeli security coordination and the prevention of another Palestinian uprising. The odds of the unity government surviving now appear increasingly dim.
And so, while the world rightly expresses shock and horror at the deaths of the three Israeli teenagers, it appears to have all but forgotten about the tragic ways in which Israel’s occupation and war crimes affect the lives of ordinary Palestinian citizens on a everyday basis. Caught between selective sympathy and collective punishment, it is once again the latter who bear the brunt of an utterly disproportionate Israeli crackdown and a military and civilian quest for vengeance driven by deep-seated racism and religious hatred. When will this bloody madness end?
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