BY ARI SPITZER
Amidst photos friends had posted, and articles about the FIFA World Cup that populated my newsfeed, a headline appeared: “Search for Israeli Teenagers Ends in Tragedy.” Slowly but surely with each refresh, the headline and others like it pervaded my social networks. Three yeshiva students in Israel, Gilad Sha’ar, 16, Eyal Yifrah, 19, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, were kidnapped by terrorists under the cover of darkness from a hitchhiking point in an area called Gush Etzion and found on June 30, 2014 murdered.
At first sight, the headline gave rise to the utmost of human experiences: the wretched feeling of despondence—impotence against mortality—and a rapidly fomenting rage within, seeking swift retribution for those responsible. After staring silently out the window, allowing the world to continue to revolve around me as I took stock of the emotions (anyone who has felt loss knows this sensation) I sought distraction on Facebook—but to no avail. Post after post after post of “Rest in Peace #GiladEyalNaftali” or “Never Forget,” appeared. Things began to change.
I could see I was not alone in my reaction; as the moments passed, there was a marked shift in tone from mourning to outrage. With more than quadruple the amount of likes than the updated relationship status from “Engaged,” to “Married” of my recently wed cousin, a friend of mine on Facebook had posted a diatribe against the perpetrators, claiming there is no proportional response to kidnap and murder; there is only vengeance to ensure such tragedy never happen again. In short, give ‘em hell and hold nothing back.
My friend was not alone. Supporters of Israel around the world, galvanized by the tragic news took to the web, no longer posting messages of mourning, but instead demands for retaliation. A Facebook page was created, calling on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to mobilize troops and strike with no hesitation—it quickly attracted tens of thousands of vocal members. It came to light that supporters of the Palestinians, who by and large had first reacted with jaded indifference had been posting selfies on Facebook and Twitter holding up the number three, three fingers; one for each Israeli teenager.
According to a military statement, Israeli soldiers had searched 2,218 locations, confiscated $350,000 worth of property, arrested 419 Palestinians, 335 of whom are affiliated with Hamas and killed six Palestinians who obstructed the search. When the bodies were found and killers identified, the Israeli military mobilized further. Airstrikes had begun. Protests and clashes began in the streets of cities across Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
It was at this stage of the saga that Israel had what the world considered a legitimate warrant—both legal and moral—to “do what was necessary” to go about bringing a justice to the three Israeli teenager’s murderers. It was, admittedly a rare moment in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It was not to last.
Not a day passed until, following the burial of the Israeli youth, radical Jewish nationalists paraded the streets of Jerusalem chanting “Death to the Arabs,” assaulting Arab Israelis they encountered. That night, yet another innocent life was lost in the crossfire. Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, 16, was forced into a car, kidnapped, and murdered. Israeli authorities have yet to determine by whom, though six Israelis have been taken into custody. Palestinian public opinion did not need an Israeli coroner’s decision to craft its own—there is little doubt either among Palestinians, or indeed most Jews (or at the very least this one), that it was Jewish extremists that perpetrated the retaliatory killing.
Clashes in the streets, protests for peace, protests for escalation, calls for third intifada, airstrikes in Gaza, rockets shot at cities like Tel Aviv, well within Israel’s borders. Ironically, neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian governments were seen as the primary instigators, rhetorically speaking, of the violence. It would seem from the outside that this is an eruption of popular animosity of one people against another.
In Israel, and among Jews of the Diaspora, there is no question that Israel’s response in this moment of crisis has been dictated not by a majority but by vocal, incorrigible minority. For years this bloc has cried for the destruction of Hamas—not unlike hard line anti-Zionist Palestinians have called for the destruction of Israel.
Unique to this episode of the Israeli-Palestine drama is that, as a result of the conciliatory machinations of moderates Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, this minority is in the seat of power. Worse yet, because the three Israeli teenagers were studying in a yeshiva in an area inhabited by its supporters, Naftali Bennet, the bombastic leader of Habayit Hayehudi—the party in the Israeli Parliament to which many “settlers” belong—has commandeered their mourning and called for a “proper Zionist response.”
The soil is pregnant with potential for escalation. Prime Minister Netanyahu has thus far walked a tremendously narrow line between deterring Palestinian aggression and mollifying the Israelis’. The only way to accomplish both: retribution. This course would take Israel down a path of prolonged confrontation. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the hawk that he is, has made it clear that he favors, or at least insists upon considering it, reconquering Gaza. Zeev Elkin, the head of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, have called for building a memorial at the spot the three Israeli teenagers were found.
Despite his ministers’ grumblings and a restive public, Netanyahu has yet to authorize any assassinations or more obtrusive expansion of military presence besides heightened alertness and border security. Reservists, however, have been called to prepare for a ground invasion. As center-left Israeli’s newspaper Haaretz’s Amos Harel wrote, such acts of retribution would win acclaim from the right in Israel and indeed abroad, but would invariably alienate the left. With approval of Abbas at an all-time low within Gaza and among Palestinians, Abbas is increasingly beholden to a hawkish rhetoric to maintain the loyalty of his people. The further Israel pushes its own troops, the further Abbas will be forced to push back. Entering en masse into Gaza, laying waste to Gaza would be the undoing of Abbas, and the unity government between Hamas and Fatah igniting what is looking more, and more by the day, conflagration.
The attitude of many Jews is that no amount of punishment can suffice, no pain inflicted upon the enemy can match the pain the families of the three Israeli youth, and indeed Jews around the world have endured. As columnist Zvi Bar’el pointed out, Hammurabi’s “eye-for-an-eye,” has been rewritten by the settling right as “settlement-for-a-settler.” This maxim and the radical viewpoint to which it owes its conception must not be construed, or misconstrued, as the Israeli perspective—nor the Jewish, nor the Zionist. Why pursue violent retribution, when no punishment can suffice? It is a self-defeating thesis—both logically, and strategically.
During the concluding weeks of the Second World War, a Gallup poll reported only 13% of Americans originally wanted to be at war with the Japanese. It was Palestinian nationalists who had in the past been arrested by Palestinian and Israeli authorities that killed Gilad, Eyal and Naftali. It was radical Jewish nationalists that murdered Abu Khdeir. The Israeli government and Jews abroad cannot let the 13% perpetuate this conflict any longer. The Zionist response ought to be empathy and dialogue, not vigilantism, nor ground invasion. Respect for one another’s loss will yield a situation that security forces can control with little risk of collateral damage.
In the weeks before America was dragooned into World War I in 1917, Randolph Bourne commented that Americans in their “preoccupation with reality, [had] forgotten that the real enemy is War rather than imperial Germany.” Bourne went on, “There is work to done to prevent this war of ours from passing into popular mythology as a holy crusade.” The teenagers’ memories have been left in the open to become fodder for radicals, being politicized and enshrined in martyrdom. War has not begun, but it is only one without conciliation, the specter of ruinous war will loom over Israel’s shoulder for decades longer until tragedy rears its head once more.