Palestine: Caught Between Selective Sympathy And Collective Punishment

Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24

This week, Israel was shaken by the horrific discovery of the bodies of three 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 evening prayer, and it is suspected that they were shot and killed by Palestinian extremists shortly thereafter. For days now, the country has been transfixed by a sense of collective mourning and shared sympathy for the boys’ families.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately blamed Hamas for the deaths and ordered a large-scale crackdown on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, followed by the bombing of over thirty sites in Gaza just hours after the discovery of the bodies. Since the teenagers’ disappearance on June 12, Israeli military action has left at least six Palestinians dead, including 10-year-old Ali and 15-year-old Mohammed, and over 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 by unknown assailants in East Jerusalem. It is suspected that 16-year-old Mohammed was kidnapped and burned to death by far-right extremists in revenge for the deaths of the Israeli boys. His body was so badly charred that investigators refused to let his father see it. Fierce riots broke out in East Jerusalem shortly after news of the murder broke.

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 three teenagers undoubtedly warrant widespread media attention, while their mourning families deserve heartfelt international sympathy. The moment we stop caring about the politically-motivated killing of young people 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 disgust over the death of the Israeli teenagers with unambiguous sympathy and unequivocal support for the families of the hundreds of young Palestinian victims of deadly 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 onto 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, very 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 the people of Palestine face today. In addition to an unjustifiable lack of international attention for 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 Palestinian 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 peaceful 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 Defense Forces. 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 Netanyahu’s part. Local analysts claim that the Prime Minister 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 seem to 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 far-right 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 approach of divide-and-rule diplomacy.

The first point is the most self-evident: Israel is simply boiling over with racist anger right now. In recent days, groups of far-right extremists have been rampaging 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. In the meantime, 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 Palestinians, while an influential rabbi urged the government to “turn the IDF into an army of avengers, ‘which will not stop at 300 Philistine foreskins’.” In this context, Netanyahu’s overblown response to the death of the three teenagers must be seen as catered exclusively to a bloodthirsty domestic audience. A secular hardliner himself, Netanyahu can ill-afford to be seen to waver in the face of such an overt provocation, 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 long-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 their racist anger. By aligning himself with the popular outrage over the kidnapping and by channeling the country’s deep-seated hatred of Arabs into a violent crackdown on Hamas militants and ordinary Palestinian citizens alike, Netanyahu may succeed in deflecting some of the far-right’s anti-government sentiment and pacifying its overt racism, while stoking the flames of Israeli nationalism and further legitimizing the aims of the occupation.

Beyond these internal political motivations, however, there’s another, more strategic concern that is likely to animate the government’s heavy-handed response to the killings. For years, Netanyahu’s official 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 “proper” Palestinians — 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, thus keeping 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 co-opting Fatah and angering Hamas, the chances of Palestinian unity were greatly diminished.

Some of that seemed to change in April this year, when Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation pact that eventually led to the swearing in of a unity government onJune 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 the political sledgehammer with which to drive a wedge in the fledgling Palestinian unity government.

While some Hamas officials openly praised the kidnappings, Hamas itself has neither confirmed nor denied any involvement — and while it is undoubtedly possible that the Hamas leadership did indeed give the order for this heinous crime, it is equally possible that the suspected kidnappers acted independently of its command structures. None of this, however, really matters to the Israeli government, which was willing to blame Hamas for the boys’ disappearance even without any substantial evidence to support their case. Within days, the Israeli military had moved in to detain most of the Hamas leadership, while stepping up the pressure on the moderate PLO leader and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Once again, the divide-and-rule strategy appears to be working. While Hamas officials are now calling for a third intifada in response to the Israeli crackdown, Abbas has roundly condemned the kidnappers — in Arabic, and on Saudi soil — and has pledged the continuation of security coordination with Israel and the prevention of another Palestinian uprising. The odds of the unity government surviving now appear increasingly dim.

What this tells us, then, is that once again the savage murder of young civilians is being used as a political ploy by hardliners and extremists on both sides of this asymmetric conflict — and while the world rightly expresses shock at the tragic deaths of the three Israeli teenagers, it appears to have all but forgotten about the children of Palestine. 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 quest for vengeance driven by deep-seated racism and religious hatred. When will this bloody madness end?

Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher at the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the European University Institute, and the founding editor of ROAR Magazine.


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