Middle East Eye – 20 June 2014
The apparent abduction of three teenagers – blamed by Israel on the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas – has provoked a wave of revulsion in Israel but almost no readiness to examine the causes of the incident or the appropriateness of Israel’s response.
The youths, one aged 19 and the two others 16, have been missing since they were seen hitchhiking in a settler area of the West Bank late on 12 June. A huge Israeli military operation, which has involved mass arrests of Palestinians, a lockdown of the city of Hebron and raids on hundreds of homes, has so far failed to locate them.
There are indications that tensions are rising rapidly. On Friday morning, a 16-year-old Palestinian was reported to have been shot dead by Israeli soldiers during a raid on the West Bank village of Dura, and another seriously injured during confrontations in Qalandia. Israeli airstrikes on Gaza have left six people, including four children, wounded.
But with most Israeli Jews welcoming Israel’s harsh response, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, Haneen Zoabi, discovered the cost of not joining the chorus of outrage. She was assigned a bodyguard this week after receiving a flood of death threats, but is also being investigated by state prosecutors for incitement.
In an interview, she refused to dismiss those who carried out the abductions as simple “terrorists”, describing them instead as people driven to desperate acts by living under occupation.
Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman responded by calling Zoabi a terrorist, adding: “The fate of the kidnappers and the fate of Zoabi, an inciter, should be the same.” A popular Israeli Facebook page, meanwhile, urged the army to “Shoot a terrorist every hour – until the boys are returned”.
Reflecting on the furore, Zoabi said she was “surprised” by the controversy “since the injustice inflicted on the other side is so much greater. There are thousands of abducted Palestinians in Israeli prisons.” She concluded: “Just as I want the kidnapped Palestinian prisoners to be freed, I want the [Israeli] boys to be freed.”
That kind of moral equivalence – however justified – is one very few Israeli Jews, or many in the international community, are willing to countenance. But if they hope to avoid a future of ever-escalating violence that sucks in both Israelis and Palestinians, they need to listen to Palestinians like Zoabi.
As Zoabi noted, Palestinian attempts to abduct Israelis are intimately tied to the issue of the 5,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, especially the nearly 200 of them held without charge in administrative detention. More than half of the latter group are nearly two months into a hunger strike to protest their continuing incarceration.
Palestinian groups have long seen abductions of Israelis as leverage to free prisoners, as occurred in dramatic fashion in 2011 with the release of more than 1,000 prisoners in return for an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas five years earlier.
Gaining bargaining chips has become an even more valued goal since Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, reneged in April on a promise to release a final batch of long-term prisoners. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, had engaged in months of fruitless peace talks in return for an agreement to free more than 120 prisoners.
In fact, Netanyahu has responded to the abductions not with a new wariness on the issue of prisoners’ rights but by massively adding to Palestinian grievances about the prisoners.
The Israeli army is making mass arrests across the West Bank of politicians and anyone with the loosest connection to Hamas. It is also re-imprisoning many of the Palestinians who had been released in return for Shalit. The chances that any of the more than 350 people arrested so far have information on the abductions is highly unlikely, as even Israeli military analysts have conceded.
In addition, the government is racing through legislation to force-feed the hunger-striking prisoners, and has okayed the effective reintroduction of torture as standard procedure against the people it is arresting. This reverses a ruling 15 years ago by Israel’s supreme court that for the first time severely limited the use of torture.
Even more emotive in this case than the general issue of the prisoners is the matter of Israel’s treatment of Palestinian children. Up to 700 pass through Israeli prisons each year, most held for throwing stones on evidence their lawyers have not seen, often based on forced confessions from the child himself or other children in detention. The conviction rate of minors stands at over 99 per cent.
Human rights groups note that Israel is the only country that systematically prosecutes children in a military court system.
The Israeli army’s night-time raids on Palestinian homes, in which children as young as 10 or 11 can be seized from their beds at gunpoint, and then transferred into prisons in Israel in violation of Israeli law, look every bit like abductions to most Palestinians.
Israelis and international observers might arrive at the same conclusion were they to watch the horrifying footage contained in a recent documentary on Australian television, Stone Cold Justice.
Nakba Day executions
So the slogan visible on T-shirts across Israel – “Bring back our boys” – could just as easily be worn by Palestinians in the streets of Ramallah or Nablus.
Israelis’ current expectations of Palestinian remorse for the abductions are also unlikely to stir much soul-searching among Palestinians. They wonder instead why there was so much less interest from either Israelis or the international community when Israeli soldiers executed, rather than abducted, two Palestinian children near Ramallah last month during Nakba Day protests.
Rather than evoking the outcry being heard now, most Israelis rejected the evidence clearly visible in video footage of the killings of Nadim Nuwara, 17, and Mohammed Abu al-Thahir, 16. Both were unarmed when they were shot. A recent autopsy confirmed what was already obvious: they were killed with live ammunition by Israeli sharpshooters.
Israel’s dangerous self-absorption – and its refusal to consider the wider political and military framework within which the abductions occurred – is only reinforced by the international response. World leaders who leapt to issue condemnations of the abductions have failed to offer similar denunciations of even graver Israeli atrocities against Palestinians, such as the Nakba Day killings.
Red Cross intervenes
Human rights organisations have performed no better. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the official arbiter of the Geneva Conventions, the bedrock of international humanitarian law, issued a statement urging the three Israeli teenagers’ immediate release.
But the Red Cross carefully avoids making critical statements about Israel’s many war crimes in enforcing the occupation. As was expected, the Red Cross refused requests to issue a similar call for Israel to release the Palestinian children it is holding.
What the international responses have overlooked is the context for Palestinian acts of violence, such as the abductions: Israel’s nearly half-century of belligerent occupation. That is a continuous and inciting act of violence against the Palestinian people, to which they sometimes react with their own, more limited acts of violence.
Instead of facing this fact, Israel has responded by putting its military boot even more firmly on Palestinians’ throats. It is now exploiting outrage at the abductions to justify eradicating Hamas’ political presence in the West Bank, even though so far there is no evidence linking the kidnappings to Hamas. (With the assistance of the Palestinian Authority’s security services, Israel arrested most of Hamas’ military leaders in the West Bank following the capture of Shalit in 2006.)
Israel has not even tried to hide its intentions. One senior commander, Nitzan Alon, said this week: “Hamas will come out of this confrontation weakened both strategically and operationally. We’ll continue weakening them for as long as it takes.”
Israel’s economy minister, Naftali Bennett, was more forthright: “We will turn membership in Hamas into an entry ticket to hell.” While Alex Fishman, an analyst with close ties to the security services, said Israel was treating this as a “one-time operational opportunity” to “castrate” Hamas in the West Bank.
According to the Israeli media, Israel’s intention is not only to arrest the Hamas leadership in the West Bank, including its political leaders, and break up its charitable networks, but also to exile the West Bank leadership to Gaza. In short, Israel intends to interfere directly in Palestinian politics, guaranteeing a one-party statelet – under the Fatah party of Abbas – in the West Bank and restricting Hamas to the tight confinement of Gaza.
Given that the Palestinian factions recently agreed to a unity government, and are preparing for elections in the coming months, Netanyahu is actually intending to prise apart the Palestinian reconciliation and strip Palestinians of the chance to elect their leadership. Or as Israeli military analyst Amos Harel wondered of the current operations’ goals: “Will the campaign go on until Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas publically renounces the agreement with Hamas?”
‘Gates of hell’
Netanyahu is again having his cake – refusing to engage in real negotiations on Palestinian statehood – and eating it: upending Palestinian efforts to seek other diplomatic options to end the occupation. It is confirmation that Netanyahu is the one, far more so than the abductors, who is threatening any chance of peaceful coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said that expulsions from the West Bank to Gaza would “open the gates of hell”. Another Hamas official has warned more realistically that another intifada – or uprising – is coming, and will be ignited “when enough pressure is exerted on the Palestinian people”.
But the trickier question for Palestinians is what strategies of resistance do they really have? And herein lies the paradox.
Because, as Israel has confined them to ever smaller spaces inside the occupied territories, Palestinians have found the tools available to them to resist more and more restricted too. This is particularly apparent in Gaza, where militants have adopted a strategy of rocket fire into Israel – to much condemnation around the world – largely because there is no enemy to confront directly. A war against the drones hovering out of sight above, watching, is not yet feasible.
As Haneen Zoabi suggested in her interview, abductions of Israelis are a weapon of the weak, a way Palestinians can strike back against those stealing their lands without risking the suicidal course of taking on the might of the Israeli army.
But Israeli intentions to weaken the formal political-military structures in Palestinian society represented by Fatah and Hamas will not make acts of opportunistic violence like the abductions of the Israeli teenagers less likely. In fact, it can be expected to make such incidents more common.
Bureaucracy-heavy groups like Fatah and Hamas, dependent on centralised planning, have found it increasingly difficult to act against Israel in an era of hi-tech surveillance. The preparations for resistance operations have invariably left a footprint visible to Israeli intelligence.
Instead, there are indications that much smaller cells, largely independent of these traditional structures, are starting to emerge, possibly based around families, where the bonds of loyalty are tighter and less likely to be penetrated by Israel.
Israel’s difficulties solving the current abductions suggest that just such a cell may be behind this operation. Breaking apart Hamas and Fatah, and thereby weakening them, could simply accelerate this process.
Such developments promise a treacherous future for Palestinians even more than Israelis. Samir Awad, a politics professor at Birzeit University, near Ramallah, has observed that the collapse of political factions could lead to what he calls the “Aghanistanisation” of the occupied territories, with tribal warlords taking over small enclaves that become their personal fiefdom.
Meanwhile, analyst Chemi Shalev warned recently that the abductions were pushing Israelis to the edge of a collective “insanity”, overwhelmed by self-righteousness and intolerance, “a society losing its grip”.
The public hounding of Zoabi for speaking a few simple truths is a further sign that most Israelis would rather continue living in dangerous denial than confront the destructive reality of the occupation.