The abduction and murder of three West Bank yeshiva students is viewed by the Palestinian public as just another incident in a routine of violence for which Israel bears primary responsibility. It didn’t spark opposition and protest, but neither did it spark support and calls for “more.”
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Two weeks under an Israeli military steamroller that harmed thousands of Palestinian families with no connection to the kidnapping killed even the natural tendency to feel compassion and identification on an individual level. And that’s aside from the basic fact that Palestinians see that Israelis in particular, and the world in general, discriminate when it comes to violence.
Palestinian violence merits condemnation, and both its perpetrators and those who weren’t its perpetrators are punished with great severity, even though it is by nature reactive. In contrast, the permanent Israeli violence – by the government due to the very fact that it is a foreign government, by the army and by private individuals like settlers – not only isn’t penalized, but is barely reported. It isn’t defined as violence, it doesn’t interest Israelis, and it certainly doesn’t spark feelings of identification in them. Israeli victims of violence – of whom there are fewer than there are Palestinian victims – are given names and faces in Israel and worldwide. The many Palestinian victims are at best mere statistics. This assertion isn’t just a view expressed in a newspaper op-ed; it’s at the root of the Palestinians’ daily experience. The lack of compassion in specific cases is the Palestinian response to this discrimination.
As long as the bodies hadn’t been found, a great many Palestinians believed no abduction had ever occurred. In their view, the kidnapping was fabricated to thwart the Palestinians’ national unity government, undo the achievements (from the Palestinian perspective) of the deal to free kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, and harm Hamas. They concluded that the kidnapping benefited Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which had been painted into a diplomatic corner (for example, by the European and American refusal to object to the Palestinian unity government). The hunger strike by Palestinians under administrative detention in Israel had begun to make waves in the media, and the killing (murder, according to the Palestinians) of two Palestinian teens in Beitunia by Israeli soldiers had exposed lies in Israel’s account of the incident and utterly embarrassed the Israeli authorities. For a while, it even caused the army and the border police – according to both demonstrators and journalists – to exercise uncustomary restraint at several demonstrations. So instead of asking, “Who is this Palestinian who has managed to undermine all these Palestinian successes,” they took refuge in conspiracy theories.
That prevented any public discussion of a different conclusion: Not only is there no unified Palestinian strategy, but it has once again been proven that even within Hamas, there is no coordination between tactics and strategy. The kidnapping endangers the new government and works against the interests of Hamas’ leaders and many branches of the movement. They needed the unity government, in the short term, to survive the crisis over how to pay salaries to Hamas employees in Gaza, and in the longer term, to get rid of the burden of the chronic economic crisis created by the Israeli blockade. Yet even those – primarily in the Fatah party – who were furious at the local players who planned and perpetrated the kidnapping, were compelled to suppress their feelings of anger in light of the Israeli onslaught against a very large section of the Palestinian public.
Others, including opponents of Hamas, were waiting for the moment when the kidnappers would announce their terms for returning the hostages (alive). In the asymmetrical balance of power between Palestinians and Israelis, abduction is seen as a legitimate tool. If the murderers had planned to keep the abducted teens alive but something went wrong, this attests to amateurism and lack of proper preparation. Yet it’s doubtful any discussion of this issue will be possible, either. Hamas doesn’t publicly repudiate those of its members who failed or acted on their own initiative.
In this atmosphere, Palestinians who believe it’s wrong to kill unarmed Israeli teens, even if they are settlers or study in the settlements, don’t dare to say so aloud. After Palestinians were forced to admit that the kidnapped Israelis were not armed soldiers, but teens, they repeatedly stressed that they were settlers. Among the Palestinians, the prevailing view is that attacks on settlers are justified, and that a distinction should be made between them and Israeli citizens living on the other side of the Green Line.
One man who says he could never personally kill a settler declared that the attack on these settlers was interpreted as a signal to Israelis that they shouldn’t send their children to the West Bank, that they shouldn’t feel safe there, that they should know their presence there means the dispossession of the Palestinians. It’s very doubtful that this is the message those who kidnapped and murdered the three teens originally planned to send. What is certain, however, is that at the moment, there is no internal Palestinian debate over whether the murder indeed serves this goal.