An edited version of this article originally appeared at LobeLog.
There is a sure, albeit contemptible, way to get the attention of virtually the entire state of Israel. That is to kidnap some of its younger citizens. It worked with Cpl. Gilad Shalit, and it seems to be playing well again, this time with civilians (living in the settlements does not strip one of their civilian status under international law).
Israel, as a whole, is riveted on the fates of these three young men. There is a national outcry in Israel when kidnappings occur that is even louder than when Israelis, even young Israelis, are killed. There is a sense of urgency; that something must be done to free the captives before a worse fate befalls them. The attention is widespread and constant, both in cases, like Shalit’s, where the captive is known to still be alive and in cases where the captives are believed or known to already be dead. Israelis press hard for a resolution to the situation. Political leaders do respond, but sometimes, sadly, they do so in self-serving ways.
Was it Hamas?
The outcry from the people of Israel over the fates of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Sha’ar, and Naftali Frankel is very real. The bluster and finger-pointing from Benjamin Netanyahu is an insult. Netanyahu immediately laid the blame at Hamas’ feet, absurdly held the Palestinian Authority responsible, demeaned a very strong statement by Mahmoud Abbas denouncing the act and managed to defy all logic by suggesting that this event was the result of the Palestinian reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas.
Beyond the visceral response, however, some perspective is needed. The media seems to have firmly latched on to the idea that Hamas is responsible for this. It is certainly possible that is the case, but the evidence thus far points away from that direction. Netanyahu has offered no concrete backing for his statement at all, expecting the world to simply take him at his word despite the obvious benefit for him. The media seems to have done so, but others are more dubious.
The United States has thus far only conceded that some evidence may point to “Hamas’ involvement.” Hamas has sent out mixed signals, as they always do, but the official line has been that they had nothing to do with the kidnapping. And the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Major General Yoav Mordechai would only say they have “a great deal of information” about the kidnappings, pointedly avoiding naming any group that might be responsible.
But whether it was Hamas or not is not really an issue for Netanyahu. The kidnapping has provided the pretext he needed to attack Hamas in the West Bank, and also hit the Palestinian Authority for their temerity in striking a unity agreement with the Islamist party against Israel’s wishes. Netanyahu quite reasonably believes he can drive a wedge between Hamas and Fatah and hasten the collapse of their unity pact, but if that fails, he very well knows that he can weaken Hamas’ presence in the West Bank through mass arrests and possibly deportations to Gaza. At the same time, he puts Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a very difficult position; Abbas cannot be seen by the international community as supporting or being indifferent to the kidnapping, but neither can he afford to be seen by his own public to be collaborating with Israel.
The problem for Abbas is deeply connected with the issue of Palestinian prisoners of Israel, an issue that has resurfaced recently as many of them have gone on hunger strike. Israel often holds Palestinians in so-called “administrative detention,” which means they are being held without charge or trial. It is supposed to last no longer than six months, but because the order can be renewed, some Palestinians are imprisoned in this fashion for years.
The other end of that spectrum, of course, is the controversial issue of Palestinian prisoners who have been convicted of violence against Israelis, especially civilians. These prisoners are often seen as heroes by the Palestinians, a source of intense friction for even the most liberal Israelis. The Israeli public, for their part, doesn’t often distinguish much between Palestinian prisoners; they are generally seen as terrorists by most Israelis, although this is not by any means universal. Many of the more liberal Israelis are not entirely comfortable with the practice of extended administrative detention, although most would acknowledge its utility if used sparingly. Most countries, it should be noted, have some system like this one when attempting to prevent violent crimes, and most have been known, on occasion, to abuse the practice; it’s just that democracies, on the whole, do not abuse it to nearly the extent that Israel does.
Currently, about 300 Palestinian prisoners, including both those that have been charged, indicted or convicted, and those who are held in administrative detention, are on a hunger strike. Israel, seeking to avoid the international embarrassment and the potential powder keg in the Occupied Territories that would result from the deaths of the strikers, is attempting to pass legislation to permit forced feeding, something that is widely considered a grave breach of personal privacy and medical ethics.
For many Palestinians, the issues of Palestinian prisoners and Israelis being held illegally by Palestinians are intimately connected. Israel, of course, has reinforced this on several occasions by agreeing to prisoner exchanges, as they did with Gilad Shalit in 2011. So, as Israel cracks down hard on Palestinian prisoners, Palestinians, even if they object to the kidnapping of the three Israelis, are going to be frustrated if they see Abbas putting more energy and resources into finding the Israelis than dealing with the conditions of his own people in Israeli jails, many of whose lives are currently in jeopardy as well.
Let me be clear, at this point, that nothing I say here should be construed as suggesting that Netanyahu does not want to find Yifrach, Sha’ar and Frankel. I’m sure he does. But Bibi is nothing if not an opportunist, and he knows from the Shalit experience that it is entirely possible that this could drag on for some time. He is not about to let the mere fact of human suffering get in the way of his political agenda.
And Netanyahu certainly has an agenda here; what he lacks, as always, is an endgame. His aim is to use the crackdown, legitimized at least for the Israeli public by the kidnapping, to punish Abbas for dropping out of the sham talks that John Kerry was piloting and finally coming together with Hamas to agree on a technocratic government that is charged with paving the way for Palestine’s first national election since 2006. Anticipating that Hamas will gain support in the West Bank, he is also using this opportunity to weaken their infrastructure and leadership through mass arrests.
But where does he go from there? His actions will further weaken Abbas, who is already teetering on the edge of oblivion in the West Bank. And, while Hamas may be somewhat less powerful in the short term, these actions are not going to do long term damage.
Part of Netanyahu’s strategy here is also to try to make the case that this is the result of the Palestinian unity agreement, that the world needs to stand by Israel and, in essence, against the entire Palestinian body politic. The hope, for Bibi, is that international pressure can be brought down on Abbas to get him to agree to a deal that would appeal to Bibi’s coalition. Such a deal would include a non-contiguous Palestinian pseudo-state with virtually no Palestinian presence in Jerusalem, a continued Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, Israeli control of Palestinian airspace… in short, the deal Bibi and Kerry were trying to force on Abbas before talks broke down.
But it doesn’t seem to be working. The United States has dutifully expressed its outrage, but in tepid terms. The European Union took five days before condemning the kidnapping. The message to Netanyahu is that the world is indeed outraged by this act, but they don’t see it as fundamentally changing anything.
The media campaign Israel has gone on has worked well within Israel, but less so outside. The attempt by the Israel Defense Forces to get a Twitter campaign going by grossly playing off the crimes of Boko Haram in Nigeria in abducting hundreds of girls to be sold into sexual or other kinds of slavery was rightly greeted outside of Israel as cheap and insulting. It was turned around by pro-Palestinian social media activists to reflect the large numbers of Palestinians held by Israel. And the timing of the whole campaign is poor, as attention is focused now on Iraq, among other, ongoing areas of tension.
That is not to say the world is unsympathetic. These are, from all reports, three innocent young men, whose crime is that they were living and studying in a school in occupied territory. That does not justify violence against them. They are certainly victims, and they are rightly seen that way in most of the world.
Sadly, the Netanyahu government cannot let such a plight speak for itself. Instead they must polish it and present it in a propaganda package that is more about demonizing all Palestinians than it is about finding the kidnap victims. The repeated references to “our boys” and calling the abductees “children” might later resonate in a way Israel doesn’t like. The young men are 19, 16 and 16 years of age, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find instances where Israel treats Palestinian youths of those ages like “children.”
The occupation does not justify an attack on civilians, not even on settlers, if they are not threatening anyone. But like every other occupation in history, it does inevitably lead to it, especially if the occupying power is putting civilians illegally into occupied territory. Such acts are criminal, but inevitable. This did not happen because Palestinians hate Jews, nor because Hamas and Fatah reached an agreement. It happened because of the occupation. When millions of people are treated unjustly, some number of them will act unjustly in response. Maybe it’s about time people, if they are truly concerned about young Jews like Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, stopped playing petty politics, trumpeting extreme nationalism and valuing force over law and worked to end a situation where millions of people live their entire lives without rights…or hope.