The shocking deaths of Israeli teenagers Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel, whose bodies were discovered last week in a shallow grave — and the disgraceful murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teen who was apparently burned alive in retaliation — threaten to usher in another bloody era of widespread unrest. The sheer youth of the victims and alleged killers involved is alarming. Unless politicians and ordinary citizens practice restraint, Israelis and Palestinians alike are putting their future in peril. The killers must be brought to justice. Beyond that, political leaders on both sides who incite violence must answer for their actions.
The identity of the suspected killers in both cases speaks volumes about how fringe groups drag their communities deeper into conflict. The murder of the three Israeli teens appears to be the work of a rogue branch of Hamas connected to the Qawasmeh clan, which is known for defying steps toward peace, even those taken by senior Hamas leadership.
In 2003, members of the clan destroyed a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel by executing a suicide attack on a bus in Jerusalem, according to Shlomi Eldar, a respected Israeli journalist. A year later, Israel offered to stop killing Hamas leaders if Hamas agreed to stop its attacks. The deal lasted several months, until Ahmed Qawasmeh, a member of the same rebellious clan, launched another suicide attack.
The kidnapping of the Israeli teens fits this pattern. One of the suspects is Marwan Qawasmeh, a 29-year-old Palestinian barber who hasn’t been seen since the teens vanished. The kidnapping followed a unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah, a Palestinian faction that has renounced violence. That deal came under scathing criticism from Israeli leaders, who saw it as Fatah’s turn toward the dark side. But members of the Qawasmeh clan also opposed the deal, because they detest Fatah’s cooperation with Israeli security forces.
If the kidnappers’ goal was to destroy the unity agreement and embarrass Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the murder of the Israeli teenagers could not have been better timed. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has said he has no information regarding the kidnapping, but that “those who did it must be saluted.” How can the unity deal survive such an attitude?
Fringe groups have the power to drag their communities deeper into conflict.
The differences between the Palestinian factions has never felt more stark. Abbas unambiguously condemned the kidnapping. Whether Meshaal ordered the crime or not, he must be held accountable for statements that incite violence.
But Hamas and its offshoots are not the only force working against peace. Khdeir was burned alive, allegedly by six young men whom The Times of Israel reported were members of a “Jewish extremist cell.” Violence committed by Israeli settlers against Palestinians — and even against the Israeli army — has been on the rise, so much so that the US State Department began including such attacks in its annual terrorism report in 2012.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deserves credit for denouncing Khdeir’s murder and personally giving his condolences to Khdeir’s parents. But previously he had only heightened tensions when he vowed to “avenge” the murder of the kidnapped teens. These words could have been interpreted as a green light for the rough treatment of hundreds of Palestinians in recent days by Israeli security forces, including Tariq Abu Khdeir, the American cousin of the boy who was burned alive.
Meanwhile, there were Jewish protests that featured cries of “death to the Arabs,” and there was a social media campaign called #avengeourboys. Israel must reckon with its own homegrown extremists who are as ideologically opposed to a two-state solution as Hamas. Fringe groups must not be allowed to destroy the prospects for peace.
If there is any silver lining to this tragedy, it is the ordinary people who have raised their voice against violence. The uncle of one of the slain Israeli teens reportedly spoke by phone to the father of the slain Palestinian teenager. Palestinians from Hebron also visited the Fraenkel family. The best way to avenge the deaths of these young people is to make sure the enemies of peace don’t win.