Sunday, July 6. 2014
On June 12 this year three Israeli teenagers -- Naftali Frenkel (16), Gilad Shaer (16), and Eyal Yifrah (19), residents and yeshiva students in Israel's occupied territories -- were kidnapped while hitchhiking from Gush Etzion, an illegal settlement in Area C, the section still under full Israeli military control. One of the three was eventually reported to have been able to call authorities to alert them of the kidnapping, but that was initially treated as a prank call. The three dead bodies were found on June 30, in a field northwest of Hebron. Details are sketchy: I gather that then were shot and killed shortly after their abduction. Piecing information together from news sources is very difficult, but there is a good overview at Wikipedia.
If this was an isolated, atomic event, it would be treated as it should be, as a heinous crime, with the public waiting passively -- aside from the usual media sensationalism -- while authorities sifted through evidence, tracked down, apprehended, and tried and punished the perpetrators. But the crime could not be isolated from its context, and it set off a series of subsequent events -- many of them criminal as well -- that continue to this day and into the future. Someone with a clear vantage and access to all the data could write a book showing the myriad ways the crimes and the conflicts reflect and refract each other, creating a cage which traps anyone and everyone committed to the conflict. The only way out of this cage is to see each crime in its own light, and never justify a new crime on the basis of an old one.
Of course, everyone behaved predictably. In Israel there are two kinds of kidnapping. One is very common, on the order of 1,000 or more instances per year: this is when any of Israel's various security outfits "arrests" Palestinian "suspects." They can be held without charge or legal cause pretty much indefinitely, although in practice they tend to be held a few months then released. As such, the total number of Israeli-held "prisoners" is limited -- in 2008, Adallah put the number at 11,000 -- but many more Palestinian men have been cycled through the system. In the weeks immediately following the kidnappings, Israelis "arrested" another 400 Palestinians, as if they were stocking up for an eventual exchange to ransom the three Israeli teens.
Much rarer are Palestinian kidnappings of Israelis: by far the most famous the kidnapping of an IDF soldier on the Gaza border in 2006, Gilad Shalit. He was held for five years by Hamas operatives and eventually repatriated in a deal that that involved release by Israel of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. With many thousands of more Palestinians locked away in Israeli prisons, there was some sentiment among Palestinians in favor of kidnapping more Israelis, but in fact there have been very few such cases, especially leading to successful hostage exchanges. Still, given the costs of getting Shalit back, it's easy to understand why Israel would overreact to a new kidnapping.
And overreact is precisely what Israel did. Aside from snatching up more than 400 prisoners, Israelis have thus far killed at least 10 Palestinians. Much of this was initially done by the IDF in what they called Operation Brother's Keeper, as they went through various Palestinian villages and refugee camps, searching and damaging over 1,000 buildings. Early on, the Netanyahu government decided to blame Hamas for the kidnappings. They quickly identified two Hebron residents as suspects, and claimed that they had been Hamas operatives. While there is no doubt that Hamas was responsible for the Shalit abduction, Hamas has recently agreed with Fatah to form a "unity government" in the Palestinian Authority, something the Netanyahu government rejects and is very keen on breaking up.
It's very important to understand that Netanyahu in particular (and for that matter nearly all prominent Israeli politicians today and in the past going back to Ben Gurion) has absolutely no desire to negotiate any sort of conflict resolution with the Palestinians. They have at present pretty much what they want: all of Jerusalem and the ancient land of Samaria and Judea, the Golan Heights, a system which keeps Palestinian and Arab violence to a low level despite subjecting the Palestinians to grossly unequal treatment, an absence of credible threats from regional powers, a generous subsidy of their military by the US, friendly alliances with the US and most nations in Europe, and a high standard of living. They may on occasion give lip service to negotiations, but in fact they give up nothing as they continue building on Palestinian land and tightening up their matrix of control. They see negotiation as a losing proposition: to resolve the conflict, they'd have to give up land and money, they'd have to give equitable rights, and for little improvement in security they'd obsolete a military system that defines so much of what Israelis live for -- that is in fact the main path to personal success, in business as well as politics.
Of course, that's a rather myopic view of Israeli success, but one they work very hard at propagandizing. They try to push two contradictory messages simultaneously: to the Palestinians, they emphasize their overwhelming power, trying to drive home the futility of resistance; to Israeli Jews, they reinforce a culture of victimhood, where their only protection is the state; and to the world, they play up every act of violence against them while playing down the much greater violence they perpetrate.
So Israel's security forces react to the kidnapping in several ways: they use the incident to reinforce their propaganda messages, and they use it as an excuse to pursue their political goals. The biggest threat to Israel's propaganda line is Hamas seeking to gain international legitimacy as a representative of the Palestinians, so Israel has used this incident to track down and pick up everyone they know of with Hamas connections. But the IDF also used this as an excuse to raid Mustafa Barghouti's Palestinial National Initiative (BDS) organization and confiscate its computers. And they subjected hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to curfews, and shut down various checkpoints.
By June 20 Israel's operations generated more resistance, which they answered with more violence. Wikipedia:
Until June 26, when the bodies were found, Israeli censorship had prevented publication of suspicions that the three teenagers had been killed. Among other things, this gave a cover of urgency for Israel's widespread military operations. After the bodies were found, Israeli politicians started talking more about collective punishment. On July 1, Israeli jets and helicopters struck 34 locations in Gaza. These were answered by small rockets launched from Gaza, so Israel bombed Gaza again, and again. Collective punishment is nothing new to Israel. The British practiced it to suppress the Arab Revolt in 1937-39, and Israel has made an art of it, from Ariel Sharon's Qibya massacre in 1953 to the sonic boom flyovers of Gaza after Israel dismantled their settlements there in 2005. Israel is reportedly massing troops along the Gaza border again, for a possible attack on Hamas like they did in 2006 after Shalit was abducted, and again in 2008's Operation Cast Lead.
One thing the Wikipedia article doesn't go into much is the widespread eruption of hatred against Palestinians within Israeli civil society, at least occasionally turning to violence. (One 16-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohamed Abu Khdai, was killed by being burning alive.) For a sense of this, see this Haaretz piece by Chemi Shalev:
For an example, Allison Deger (The Aftermath: Home demolitions and dead Palestinian teen follow Netanyahu call for revenge) interviews an 18-year-old Israeli settler, Mier Sh'aribi, at the same hitchhiking spot where the three teens were abducted, then continues:
Anyone who's read Max Blumenthal's Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel will not be surprised by these reactions. The roots of this loathing run deep: the most striking thing about Tom Segev's 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East is the extreme contrast between Israel's supremely confident military leaders and its intentionally terrified citizenry. That the military was proven justified in the Six-Day War gave them a free hand for subsequent adventurism, always be bolstered by panicking a public that grew up on holocaust stories. More often than not, those ventures -- Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008 are prime examples -- had to be ended early because they had turned into public embarrassments.
Israel's heavy-handed response to the kidnapping and murder of the three teens will also eventually be seen as a public embarrassment, but thus far the hasbara machine has milked the deaths for maximum sympathy while keeping most of everything else under wraps -- most reports of hostilities along the Gaza border focus on toy rockets (invariably attributed to Hamas) as if they are equivalent to F-16 sorties. (Of course, in some moral sense they are, but as a practical matter they are as far apart as any other measurement of relative violence in the conflict: e.g., abductions, house demolitions.) Similarly, the media routinely accepts the legitimacy of Israel's security forces, even when they operate in occupied territories, where they are allowed to invent laws on whim, selectively enforce them, all in support of illegal settlements. No one wants to point out that the three teens were illegal settlers, pawns in a political drama that's meant to dispossess and degrade the Palestinians who have lived on the land for many centuries. That's because no one wants to besmirch the innocence of the victims, but you don't need to deny facts -- that the occupation is illegal and immoral, and that the teens are, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not, are part of that occupation -- to see the killings as despicable. All one needs to understand is that no crime in the series justifies the next.
Where the story threatens to get out of hand is with the hate mobs and their revenge killings -- as opposed to the casual deaths that inevitably follow IDF operations in Palestinian villages. Israel did finally manage to arrest six Israelis for kidnapping and torturing (burning) Mohamed Abu Khdai to death -- here "arrest" is the right word: they are charged with specific crimes and entitled to the legal rights including a fair trial (although "fair" for whom is open to debate, as the Israeli legal system has been notoriously lax when it comes to crimes committed by Jews against Arabs. One of the first things I noted in reading about the kidnappings was that the two 16-year-olds (and for that matter the bloodthirsty 17-year-old quoted above) are considered to be juveniles under Israeli law, but 16-year-old Palestinians are tried (when they are tried at all) as adults.
A system is racist when it divides the population into two (or more) groups and makes legal distinctions among them, such as the law that treats Palestinian teens as adults while at the same time treating Jewish teens as juveniles. That's just one of dozens or hundreds of cases of legal discrimination practiced by Israel. Another is that Israel has no death penalty for its citizens, but Israeli security forces have assassinated hundreds of Palestinians with no judicial review whatsoever -- some with F-16s resulting in dozens of collateral deaths. One might still debate whether Zionism is intrinsically racist -- certainly some Zionists are not -- but the actual State of Israel clearly is, as is a substantial portion of its citizens (especially concentrated in the settlements in the occupied territories -- for the history of which, see Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar: Lords of the Land: The War for Israel's Settleements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007, with Blumenthal, op. cit., a useful update).
There is much more one can mention here. (One of the suspects Israel named belongs to the Kawasmeh clan in Hebron, which has some Hamas connections but also has a long history of freelance operations counter to Hamas truces. The guilt of the suspects is presumed because they recently disappeared. Israel went ahead and demolished the suspects' houses rather than stake them out.) As I said, someone should write a book, because the whole conflict is woven into this story, provided you look at it comprehensively enough.
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