Here we are again: staring at a series of terrible events in Israel and the Palestinian territories. A 16-year-old Palestinian, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was kidnapped, stabbed and then burned alive. We don’t know for sure, but Israeli police report a likely “nationalistic” motive – meaning that his killers were Jewish Israelis.
This murder comes after the bodies of three kidnapped Israeli teenagers were found in the occupied West Bank last week, after an 18-day search. That military search for Eyal Ifrach, Gilad Shaer and Naftali Frankel, during which six Palestinians were killed and hundreds more detained without charge, was described by Amnesty International as “collective punishment“.
Meanwhile, the news that the Israeli teenagers had been shot dead – evidence of which was obscured for weeks while Israelis united in the campaign to “Bring back our Boys” – unleashed a rising clamour for vengeance.
A Facebook page called “the people of Israel demand revenge” rapidly drew 35,000 likes; hundreds of Israelis, looking like a lynch mob from the old American south, ran the streets of Jerusalem chanting “Death to Arabs” and seeking out Palestinians to attack, using Arab accents to help identity their targets; Palestinians were verbally and physically attacked on streets and on buses; an attempted kidnapping of another Palestinian child was reported in East Jerusalem, close to where Abu Khdeir was later snatched.
But the ugly truth is that this bone-chillingly vengeful climate – which the families of the killed Israeli teens came out of mourning to oppose – can be no surprise. For years, there have been warnings over a toxic racism incubating within Israel – as casual as it is widespread. Israeli commentators have long sounded the alarm about the country, lamenting an isolationist, belligerent nation, broken in its own way by its imposition of the brutal occupation that has so violated the lives of Palestinians.
Those smiling Israelis on Facebook, with their signs that read: ‘Hating Arabs isn’t racism; it’s values!’ – who are they, if not the children of the most hardline, peace-averse, land-grabbing government the country has seen?
And the nation has for some time been led down this doomed path: the wounds of its Jewish people’s history abusively reopened by leaders who preach the most destructive ethno-nationalism – reducing to dishonest slogans a reality that demands brave nuance. Those smiling Israelis on Facebook, with their signs that read: “Hating Arabs isn’t racism; it’s values!” – who are they, if not the children of the most hardline, peace-averse, land-grabbing government the country has seen?
Instead of calling for calm at a time as critical as the day the bodies of the three murdered Israelis were found, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quoted from the poet, Haim Bialik: “Vengeance for the blood of a small child.”
Other ministers within his settler-enabling government have spoken in similar vein. Economy Minister Naftali Bennet wrote on Facebook: “Murderers of children and those who direct them cannot be forgiven. Now is a time for action, not words.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman used the clashes on the streets of Israel’s mixed cities to say that Palestinian citizens of Israel should be given a “clear message” and that “the place of these people is not Israel”.
And a former member of parliament, Michael Ben Ari, posted an online video demanding “death to the enemy”.
We cannot be surprised if these words are heard as endorsement by the hate mobs on the streets.
And it is small wonder that Israel’s former security chief, Yuval Diskin, laid the blame for current tensions firmly at Netanyahu’s government’s door.
A series of illusions
Diskin pointed to a series of “illusions” that the government had propagated for some time – not least among them the idea that “the Palestinians will just accept all that we are doing in the West Bank and not respond, despite their rage, frustration and worsening economic situation”.
Meanwhile, now, as always, media frames are set to slant the story. There is no justification for the killing of three Israeli teenagers – too often just labelled as “settlers”, as though the fact of their being on occupied land somehow negates their right to be blameless children.
But the violence did not start there. Palestinians watching Western media cover current events wonder now, as always, why the “cycle of violence” narrative never starts with their pain, with their killed children, or even with the daily violence of the Israeli occupation.
Why not wind back, for instance, to the two Palestinian teenagers, Nadem Syam Nawara, 17, and Mohammad Mahmoud Odeh, 16, who were killed by Israeli snipers on Naqba day in May?
Or how about the 19 Palestinians killed by the Israeli army just in the first three months of 2014?
What about pointing out that, for Palestinians, the detention of their children, running into thousands, is experienced as kidnapping at an Israeli-state level?
Or how about, for a start, just describing people properly – unlike the Washington Post, which, with its recent headline (thankfully now changed) “Arab’s killing fans violence” could not, even in his death, dignify a Palestinian boy with a nationality.
By now, we must know where this starts and where it ends. We have seen decades of political failure at international level – where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has the only chance of resolution – create the vacuum that begets the violence on the streets. It is clear that none of this will stop as long as the Israeli occupation continues. And in the meantime, all the pain and suffering is grotesque. It is all avoidable. It is all tragic, beyond words.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.