As of Wednesday evening, the Israel Police and Shin Bet security service had yet to make headway in the investigation of the murder of a young man in East Jerusalem on Tuesday night. Aside from the possibility that the murder was a nationalistic hate crime carried out by an Israeli terror cell in response to the murders of the three teenagers kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank, it is possible it was carried out by Palestinians for other reasons, the police believe. The caution stems from a lack of information, but also from fear of being mistaken, during an already-sensitive time, especially as the police have become the media’s punching bag following their failure to appropriately handle a distress call from one of the kindapped teens, Gilad Shaar.
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The lack of clarity is less interesting to the Palestinians. According to the murdered boy’s family, as well as other residents of the Shuafat neighborhood of East Jerusalem, there is no doubt. To them, that the child was murdered by Israelis is already a fact. The timing creates a clear connection in their minds between the announcement that the kidnapped teens’ bodies were found and the hundreds of youths who rioted in central Jerusalem and resorted to violence against Palestinian workers on Tuesday night. The people of Shuafat need no further convincing that the murder was an act of vengeance.
As the hours pass, the turmoil is focused primarily in Shuafat, and the news has fallen upon deaf ears throughout most of the West Bank, which is primarily concerned with the month of Ramadan. In any case, the violence in Shuafat on Tuesday night was exceptionally harsh compared to recent years and has prompted a similarly harsh response from police. Friday’s Ramadan prayers will most likely be conducted amidst more tension than usual on the Temple Mount. Through channels of joint security cooperation, both Israel and the Palestinian authorities are trying to calm things down, in hopes that the violence can be curbed after this most recent murder. It’s too early to know if their hopes will come true.
The victim’s family has numerous claims about the police’s slow handling of its kidnapping complaint, which was first made just minutes after the fact. After the way the police hotline handled the kidnapped Israelis, outright discrimination can be ruled out. Still, it seems that the Israeli security organizations must heed Prime Minister Benjamin Netnayahu’s calls and make every effort to quickly identify the murders. It is very important, should this murder turn out unrelated to the kidnapped Israelis, but even more important if it turns out this was an act of Jewish terror. If it was the latter, the authorities’ poor handling of events will only intensify the Palestinian public’s anger in East Jerusalem.
On the Israeli side, tensions are high and, as has been the trend over the past year, the extreme right has taken its campaigns to the Internet. In the vein of the small scandal surrounding David the Nahlawi, the Israel Defense Forces soldier who got into a confrontation with Palestinian teens in Hebron about two months ago, this time, too, many of the young Israelis posting selfies of themselves holding messages of hate toward Arabs are soldiers in uniform. The IDF, despite frequent warnings since the last scandal, has had a hard time containing the phenomenon.
As the Shin Bet and police feared, uncovering the bodies of the three kidnapped boys has sparked a wave of protest and calls for revenge from the right. As usual, the popular action is being led by a small group of racist right-wing Rabbi Kahane’s followers. The group has managed to stay relevant (and earn quite a bit of positive press) for over 20 years, despite its wild incitements to violence. In a slightly less public way, many right-wing ministers and MK’s are fueling the situation as well, complaining about the government’s inability to respond to the murders of the three boys.
On Wednesday night, the security cabinet was set to meet for the third time in 48 hours, to try to agree on Israel’s reaction to the murders. During the previous two meetings, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and, to some extent, Communications Minister Gilad Erdan, have pressed a rather aggressive line. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, along with the heads of Israel’s security forces, have been calling for restraint. With pressure from settlers, it is likely that massive construction of thousands of housing units in the settlements will be approved, especially in the Gush Etzion bloc. What remains for the cabinet to decide is the scale of the military response — should the operations continue to focus on Hamas’ infrastructure and network in the West Bank, or should the IDF attack in the Gaza Strip as well?
The heads of Israel’s security forces have urged caution against an irresponsible response in the Gaza Strip, which could trigger a prolonged conflict with Hamas there. As usual, there are three options for possible attack. One, targeting terror organizations’ command centers, offices and storage facilities, is meant to make noise but prevent human casualties. The second would be to target Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s mid-range rocket production and storage facilities. The third would be targeted killing of high-ranking leaders within the terrorist organizations.
The phone calls ministers are receiving from Likud and Habayit Hayehudi activists in the field indicate support for the harshest action possible. Netanyahu, however, knows that choosing the second or third option could drag him into a prolonged conflict with Hamas that could spell many rockets falling on central Israel. Netanyahu will have to decide if harsh rhetoric and demonstrative but limited steps will suffice in satisfying the public’s demands for vengeance.
If the public and political pressure on Netanyahu does not let up, larger attacks on Gaza and a major conflict with Hamas there could become reality. It is exactly the kind of trap that many leaders know how to get in to, but have trouble planning an exit strategy for ahead of time. During the last round with Hamas, Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, Netanyahu displayed caution, opting to forego any action on the ground, even as many minister in his government demanded harsher moves.
According to intelligence information presented to the cabinet, which was confirmed on Wednesday night by Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, Hamas does not want armed conflict in Gaza and prefers to remain committed to the terms agreed upon after the last operation there. Hamas’ rocket fire earlier this week, for which it did not claim responsibility, was a response to the accidental death of a Hamas operative during an Israeli airstrike. Aside from that, Hamas has curbed firing rockets of its own and has also foiled attempts by other groups to launch rockets at Israel. Meshal, currently in Qatar, as well as other Hamas leaders in Gaza, hope their restraint will be enough to prevent a harsh Israeli response. It remains unclear what the officials in Jerusalem will decide.