It has been a fortnight of remarkable barbarity in the Middle East, even by the standards of a region that regularly features it. In a part of the world where the mass slaughter of Syrian civilians continues and where jihadis have reinforced their seizure of large swatches of territory by declaring an Islamic caliphate, the murder of four teenagers has captured the world’s attention, and with good reason.
First came the gruesome discovery of three Israeli teens, Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, who had been executed in gangland fashion, apparently by Palestinians linked to Hamas. Their kidnapping had been declared an Israeli “fiction” by some Palestinians, even while it was celebrated by others. Palestinian social media mocked the Israeli boys and the Israeli government’s inability to locate their abductors.
Then came the savage murder of 16-year-old Muhammed Abu Khdeir by Jewish extremists who, having failed in their attempt to murder another Palestinian a day earlier, proceeded to abduct Abu Khdeir, burn him to death and leave his charred remains in a forest. This act of unalloyed evil was apparently in revenge for the killing of the Israelis, a grotesque extension of the “price tag” attacks visited on Palestinian communities by ultra-right wing settlers.
For a fleeting moment, it appeared possible that the brutality of these killings was so stunning in its senselessness that it might trigger reflection on both sides, and the restoration of calm. In Israel, public officials from across the political spectrum expressed their revulsion at Abu Khdeir’s killing. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned the boy’s parents, while Israeli dignitaries visited his family’s home to express their condolences.
Rachel Fraenkel, mother of one of the murdered Israelis, took time from her own mourning to publicly embrace Abu Khdeir’s parents. “No mother or father should ever have to go through what we are going through,” she said, “and we share the pain of Muhammed’s parents.”
On the Palestinian side, President Mahmoud Abbas rose above a Palestinian civil society that has seen fit to bestow honors upon those who have killed Israeli civilians, and condemned the abduction of the Israeli teenagers, while Palestinian security officials assisted their Israeli counterparts in their search for the perpetrators. While no one deluded himself that Palestinians and Israelis would, like the Capulets and the Montagues in the final scene of Romeo and Juliet, clasp hands and agree to overcome their vendetta, there were nevertheless moments this past weekend when there was reason to hope that new shoots of large-mindedness might pierce the conflict’s poisoned soil.
Enter Hamas, whose doctrinal determination to annihilate Israel has — yet again — ensured that both Israelis and Palestinians will continue to lose their lives.
Since the beginning of this year, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have fired over 600 rockets at Israeli communities. These rocket attacks are the Daily Double of human violations, in which Palestinian homes and schools are used as human shields from which to fire missiles at Israeli civilians. The calculus of Hamas and its affiliates is cold-blooded: with any luck, innocent Israelis will be killed or hurt, and the Israelis, in their effort to stop the rocket fire, will inevitably kill or hurt Palestinians living near the source of the rocket fire. In short, harm to both Israelis and Palestinians is what Hamas desires, and it usually gets its wish.
Over the weekend, the Netanyahu government repeatedly signaled its desire to avoid a confrontation with Hamas, utilizing Egypt to try to negotiate a cease fire. During the past 48 hours alone, however, over 250 rockets from Gaza have been fired at Israeli communities, and thousands of Israelis have been forced to take cover in shelters. Hamas has threatened to hit Israeli civilian centers throughout Israel and, armed with an estimated 10,000 rockets, this is no idle threat.
Thus has begun this week’s new development, a development which is not truly “new” at all: the siege of Israeli civilians under rocket fire, and an Israeli government forced to take action to protect its civilians. Those who have been fortunate enough not to have endured rockets aimed at their homes can be counted upon to issue the familiar incantations about Israeli “collective punishment,” dodging as always the question of what, precisely, Israel is supposed to do about attacks against its civilian if not to try to prevent them.
The tests facing Israel are two-fold: protecting its citizens, while not permitting the violence in its neighborhood to serve as an excuse for the moral degradation of its own culture. Neither is easy and both are regrettable necessities.Jeff Robbins, a former US delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, is chairman of the New England Board of the Anti-Defamation League.