A pretext for the next stage in Israel's war

The Israeli government is carrying out collective punishment of Palestinians after the death of three teenage settlers--but how far will it go? Jason Farbman reports.

Israeli forces carry out a missile strike on a Palestinian targetIsraeli forces carry out a missile strike on a Palestinian target

IN THE early hours of July 1, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) dropped bombs on dozens of sites across Gaza, hours after three missing Israeli settler teenagers were discovered dead. With all of Israel focused on the boys' funerals, Israeli officials used the event as another opportunity to turn reality on its head.

The Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, predictably seized on the boys' disappearance and death as the pretext to raid Palestinian territory, attack Hamas and expand settlements.

While Palestinians have suffered relentless collective punishment since their disappearance on June 12, Israel has portrayed itself as the besieged victim. Israel exists on occupied land and treats Palestinians with racist contempt--but Israeli officials insist that anti-Semitism is the motivation for the kidnappings.

"They were kidnapped and murdered just for being Jewish," said Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon. "They were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by those dedicated to hurting Israeli citizens and waging a daily war of attrition against the state of Israel."

But such naked propaganda can't obscure the fact that occupation, ethnic cleansing and apartheid are at the root of this conflict--and it can't obscure the fact that Palestinians live as an oppressed people in their own land while U.S. aid ensures that Israel maintains overwhelming military superiority over the Palestinians.

Now, after an initial round of bombings that struck 34 sites in Gaza (without any proof linking these sites to the boys' disappearance), the Israeli establishment is split over the question of whether their next move should be a full-scale invasion.

From the beginning, Israeli officials have announced their intention to "teach Hamas a lesson," even though no proof has yet been furnished by anyone linking Hamas to the boys' disappearance--and even though a Hamas spokesperson denied the repeated Israeli assertions of Hamas' culpability, stating that the accusations are "stupid and baseless."

The boys' bodies were discovered in a field near the town of Halhul, just north of Hebron in the West Bank. While the Israeli military placed under siege more than a dozen Palestinian cities, towns and refugee camps, and imposed curfews for two-and-a-half weeks, the bodies turned up just 10 minutes from where they had last been seen.

As Israeli troops flooded into Halhul, several reports emerged of Jewish Israelis attacking Arabs. Among these were a taxi driver attacked with tear gas by a 17-year-old boy and a young man hospitalized after being attacked by a group of young Israelis. Elsewhere, a Jewish man in his 20s was arrested for spray-painting "Kahane was right" on a road sign--a reference to the ultra-nationalist rabbi Meir Kahane who won a sizable following in the 1980s by calling for the forced removal of Arabs from Israel.

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Israel's Ongoing Collective Punishment of Palestine

The United Nations human rights spokeswoman immediately called for all sides to not commit acts of collective punishment, which is a violation of international law. "We urge all parties to refrain from punishing individuals for offenses they have not personally committed or by imposing collective penalties," she said at a press conference in Geneva.

That her comments were aimed at both sides--as if there were any equivalence in the force deployed or position held between Israelis and Palestinians--defies the reality of Israeli occupation. Over the past 13 years, one Palestinian child has been killed on average every three days--every three days--by Israeli occupation forces.

This statistic exposes the hypocrisy of every Israeli politician seeking to fan the flames of anti-Palestinian racism. Netanyahu said the three teenaged settlers had been "abducted and murdered in cold blood by human animals," and he vowed, "Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay." Israeli Economy Minister and right-wing extremist Naftali Bennett exclaimed, "There is no forgiveness for murderers of children...Now is a time for actions, not words."

In the 18 days between the boys' disappearance and the discovery of their bodies, Israel Defense Forces raided more than 1,000 homes, ransacking many of them. More than 420 Palestinians from the West Bank were arrested, with no charges--58 of them had been released during the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange. Roughly 80 remain in administrative detention. At least five were killed, including a 15 year-old boy.

Had she been more precise, the UN spokeswoman would have implored Israel to stop its ongoing collective punishment.

But the Israeli military isn't done yet. The West Bank continues to be besieged, and the roads blockaded by soldiers and settler mobs alike. Dozens of military vehicles continued the extensive operations and home invasions in southern Hebron even after the bodies were found. Dozens more homes were searched and ransacked, causing extensive property damage. Palestinians reported injuries from live ammunition. A 16 year-old boy was killed by the IDF troops raiding Jenin.

Perhaps in this case, Israeli officials will find that there is forgiveness for murderers of children.

Israel claims that two Palestinian men--Marwan Kawasma and Amar Abu Aisha--are responsible for the boys' disappearance and death. Both were previously detained by Israel multiple times and held in administrative detention without due process. Ha'aretz has reported that each of their wives had notified the Palestinian Authority security forces that their husbands were missing. The PA in turn relayed the information to the Shin Bet Caf (General Security Forces) of Israel, which then apprehended the women and interrogated them for several hours.

Kawasma's wife, who is eight months pregnant, was re-apprehended during the late-night raid on Hebron after the bodies were found on June 30. She is currently being held by Israel, though she contends that she has no knowledge of her husband's whereabouts or plans. Other family members of the men are also being detained, including the four brothers of Marwan Kawasma and the father of Abu Aisha. In an attack on Kawasma's home, an explosion destroyed the top floor and injured an infant with shrapnel.

But remember--there is no forgiveness for the murderers of children.

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A Pretext for Israel's Interests

Israel's response to these events has been cynical, predictable and swift. Just hours after the discovery of the boys' bodies on June 30, both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ya'alon proposed avenging them by establishing a new wave of settlement construction--in their honor.

Netanyahu framed the disappearances as a Hamas kidnapping--a charge still without any evidence, and yet one that most media outlets have reported as fact.

Referencing the Israeli national poet Haim Bialik, he went on to say, "The vengeance of a young boy's blood even the devil cannot fathom, nor the vengeance of the blood of these young pure boys...Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay." In setting the narrative this way, Netanyahu has met another important Israeli goal: undermining the recent Hamas-Fatah reconciliation deal.

Deputy Security Minister Danny Danon used rhetoric familiar to anyone acquainted with Israel's past assaults on Gaza. "This tragic end will be the end of Hamas, too," he said. "We need to destroy Hamas...demolish the homes of Hamas militants, destroy their ammunition stockpiles and stop all money that is funding Hamas directly or indirectly." A deputy minister, Tzipi Hotovely, called for a renewed war of annihilation on Hamas and a policy of targeted assassinations directed at their personnel.

This sentiment was reiterated by some of Netanyahu's most powerful U.S. allies. The top Democrat and Republican on the House Middle East subcommittee sent a joint message to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas: "If it is determined that Hamas is behind this horrific tragedy, [Abbas] must immediately break up the unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization."

The military invasions, arrests and bombings are no doubt intended to provoke a reaction from Hamas. For its part, Hamas has vowed to defend Palestinians against a ground invasion, promising to "open the gates of hell" on Israel.

The Israeli military has thus far reported 18 rockets fired into Israeli territory from unknown origins. These rockets have not killed or injured anyone, but Israeli leaders know full well that any violence on Hamas' part will play into the Israeli narrative of victimhood.

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The Israeli Establishment Debates Itself

If Israel doesn't launch the full ground invasion Netanyahu is threatening, it is because there are divergent opinions about Israel's next move. Israel's security cabinet held back-to-back emergency sessions on June 30 and July 1, but as of this writing had not reached a decision regarding further military action.

Liberal Zionists seemed unlikely to support such a military action, on the grounds that it would damage Israel's reputation internationally. These concerns were captured in an article by veteran war correspondent and foreign policy critic Ron Ben-Yishai titled "Israel must crush Hamas, but do it wisely":

[I]f the option of an operation in Gaza is raised, it is likely that most cabinet ministers will refuse. Why? Because Hamas in Gaza wasn't involved in the kidnap, and an IDF invasion of the Strip would be perceived as collective punishment, which the international community would not understand and even condemn. One of the things that the state of Israel cannot lose is international legitimacy for its actions, and [it] cannot be perceived as a country that punishes an entire population with no justifiable cause.

Both the U.S. and Egypt--Israel's two most powerful allies--have signaled that Israel should not go too far and "destabilize the situation." Both have offered sympathies to Israel. "As a father, I cannot imagine the indescribable pain that the parents of these teenage boys are experiencing," said Obama in a statement.

But this concern for human life and suffering is, as always, selective. As Ali Abunimah noted, "Obama has never expressed sympathy or condolences for any of the more than 1,400 Palestinian children murdered by Israeli occupation forces and settlers." Palestinian spoken word poet Remi Kanazi wrote on Twitter with his characteristic bluntness: "'As a father,' Barack Obama mourns Israeli teens. As a president, Barack Obama blows up Pakistani, Yemeni and Somali teens."

Importantly, the U.S. and Egypt's official sympathies for Israel did not include support for a ground invasion. "I also urge all parties to refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation," Obama said at the end of his statement. Regional instability will only make the U.S. position more precarious, especially as it struggles to contain an increasingly powerful insurgency in Iraq and the transition to yet another ruler in Egypt.

If Israel's atrocities in Gaza become too gruesome to ignore, it would put Egyptian President Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi under pressure to open the Egyptian crossing into Gaza in order to aid civilians in the crosshairs of an Israeli attack. Should Israel, one of the world's most powerful militaries, invade Gaza, the largest open-air prison in the world, the eyes of the Arab world will be on Sisi. The choice between acting against Israel (and by extension the U.S.) and doing nothing to aid Palestinians under attack is certainly a choice Sisi would rather not make.

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United Israel

A military strike on captive Palestinians would certainly meet with popular support at a time when Israel has once again come together in nationalistic fervor. And yet, despite all this, there remain differences of strategy at Israel's highest levels.

These choices have not been difficult for Israel in the past. During Operation Cast Lead in late 2008-early 2009, Israel attacked Gaza, targeting its civilian infrastructure and dropping white phosphorous on the captive population. In May 2010, the IDF boarded the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship in international waters carrying humanitarian aid bound for Gaza, and killed 10 civilians. In both instances, Israel acted swiftly, put its PR machine into motion and never looked back. And there are countless other examples one could provide.

But now, the Israeli ruling class does not feel uniformly confident to act with unchecked brutality on an innocent population, showing a modicum of self-consciousness about what an incursion might bring in the way of unpleasant consequences.

And they're not mistaken to feel that way--as evidenced by recent victories in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Just recently, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to divest $21 million from three corporations doing business in illegal Israeli settlements. "We as a church cannot profit from the destruction of homes and lives," said one of the church's officials after a vote that drew attention around the world. In Europe, an increasing number of food distribution companies are refusing to buy Israeli products produced in the occupied Palestinian territories.

As Ali Abunimah wrote at Electronic Intifada:

It remains to be seen which voices Israel's leaders will heed: those demanding blood in Palestinian streets, or Israel's international sponsors who don't wish to be embarrassed and inconvenienced by another of its wild and vengeful killing sprees at a time when the rest of the region is in particularly dire shape.

While we wait to see the outcome for Gazans in this moment, we are not powerless to affect future outcomes. If BDS victories have given Israel pause in its genocidal march to wipe Palestinians from the map, then we must further commit ourselves to winning new groups to the boycott, divestment and sanctioning of Israeli apartheid, occupation and ethnic cleansing.

Daphna Thier contributed to this article.