There is nothing that Benjamin Netanyahu likes better than a self-righteous act of retributive violence against Palestinian ‘terrorists’, and the murders of the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers have given him an excuse in spades. From the moment these teenagers disappeared, Netanyahu blamed their disappearances on Hamas. On June 13, the day after the kidnappings, he declared that ‘this is what happens when you bring terrorists into government’.
At that time the perpetrators were unknown, though an organization calling itself the ‘Islamic State of Syria and Iraq – Palestine’ had supposedly claimed responsibility. Since then two suspects have been identified who may have carried out these murders, and who were purportedly members of Hamas. The Hamas leadership has insisted that it was not responsible for the kidnappings and did not authorize them, and there is no obvious reason why it would do something like this, at a time when it has been actively trying to form a national unity government with Fatah.
There is, on the other hand, every reason why a rightwing Israeli government which opposes these developments would seek to implicate Hamas, and the official Israeli response to the kidnappings has all the hallmarks of an orchestrated offical effort designed to mobilize public opinion to support military action against Hamas.
Since they were kidnapped on June 12, the three teenagers have become the objects of a national and international campaign aimed at ‘bringing back our boys’, which has gone some way to restoring the myth of Israeli victimhood, at a time when Israel is uncomfortably conscious of having lost the sympathy, not just of international public opinion, but of the powerful states whose support it has always relied on.
These efforts have largely succeeded. Already Israel has carried out punitive air strikes on Gaza, and military operations in the West Bank which Israeli spokesemen have described as a ‘ thorough cleansing’ intended to arrest those ‘infected’ with Hamas, with the passive acquiescence of the ‘international community’.
Amidst the outpouring of sympathy, there has been little or no recognition of the wider circumstances in which these murders took place. The three teenagers were part of a settler community in illegal occupation of the West Bank, whose essential purpose is the conquest and absorption of Palestinian territory and the marginalization and removal of its inhabitants.
Violence is always an inherent and inevitable component of settler colonialism. If one group of people attempts to dispossess another of their lands, their homes, and livelihoods, of their past and their future; if these two groups are placed in face-to-face, everyday contact, then it doesn’t require a sociologist to point out that they are likely to loathe and fear each other.
Historically, such interactions have often been associated with particularly cruel and very personal forms of violence, in which families are pitted against families, and children, women, and the elderly are killed alongside armed combatants. The Irish ‘plantations’, the expansion of the American frontier, the French-Algerian war, and the so-called ‘Mau Mau’ insurgency in Kenya are just a few examples of this pattern.
What the world politely calls the ‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ is no exception. Many years ago, back in the early 80s I visited the West Bank town of Hebron. Above the town was the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, one of the earliest Israeli settlements and a centre of the racist Gush Emunim movement which believed that ‘Judea and Samaria’ had been promised to Jews by God.
At that time some of these settlers occupied buildings in the heart of Hebron itself and lived under the protection of the Israeli army. I remember sitting in Hebron market, watching orthodox Jewish settlers – some of whom were extremely young – swaggering around with Uzis on their backs and the hard, contemptuous expressions of men who clearly regarded themselves as overlords in conquered territory.
The hatred was entirely mutual, and the town positively seethed wth tension and the potential for violence. In the ensuing three decades of occupation, settlers have bullied, beaten, and killed Palestinians and destroyed their homes or olive orchards, and Palestinians have killed and attacked settlers – despite invariably harsh retaliation from the Israeli army.
In the same period Israeli settlements have more than doubled, and much of this expansion took place during the so-called ‘peace process’ that began in Oslo in the 1990s and expired so ignominiously earlier this year.
This is what the ‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ entails, and the three Israeli teenagers are victims of this brutal process. You can use all the adjectives you like to describe their murders. Call them cruel, immoral, criminal, barbaric, atrocious. All these terms are accurate – even if they are rarely, if ever, applied to the more than 1,400 Palestinian children who have been shot by the Israeli army since 2000, or died under Israeli bombs, or the tens of thousands of children and teenagers who have been locked up and beaten, or who had their arms and legs broken during the first Intifada under Yitshak Rabin’s policy of ‘teaching the Arabs fear’ during the first Intifada.
That Netanyahu should seek to make political capital out of these murders is only to be expected. This is a politician whose cynicism and opportunism have always been matched by a reckless willingness to use Israel’s military might on every available opportunity.
Hamas, unfortunately, is only too willing to play Netanyahu’s game. While Israeli politicians promise to transform Hamas membership into an ‘entry to hell’, Hamas has promised to ‘open the gates of hell’ if Israel attacks Gaza. These gates have in fact been open for a long time, and this latest atrocity will only widen them still further, as Israel kills Palestinians, and Palestinians kill Israelis, until the prospects of Palestinian unity are destroyed.
This is clearly what Netanyahu and his government want. But those world leaders who now express their ‘solidarity’ with Israel, and who never condemned the settlement of the West Bank or tried to stop it, and who remain silent when Israeli once again bombs and kills Palestinians, are not just pious hypocrites; they are moral cowards and willing accomplices in Netanyahu’s blood feud – a feud that is designed to kick the possibility of peace – let alone justice – further into the long grass, where nobody will be able to find it again.