Death Spiral

Israel’s Murdered Teenagers and Dying Hopes for Peace

As Israel mourns its politicians vow retribution. Hamas threatens to “open the gates of hell.” Could U.S. diplomacy have prevented the tragedy? The sad fact: it didn’t.


AMMAN, Jordan — The tragic murder of three Israeli teens on the West Bank has their nation in mourning. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed retaliation. “They were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by human animals,” he said, declaring “Hamas will pay.” Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz blames not only Hamas, but the Palestinian Authority, which denounced the kidnappings. Steinitz said it should have protected the hitchhikers, who came from an Israeli settlement near Hebron. Hamas, for its part, denied any role in the kidnapping and the killing, but threatened that an Israeli attack would “open the gates of hell.”

In fact, those gates have been open for a long time, and this tragedy makes it all too clear just how badly peaceful activism and U.S.-led diplomacy have failed to stop the spiral toward horrific violence in the Holy Land.

Over the last two weeks, as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) searched for the missing boys, hundreds of Palestinians were detained, thousands of homes raided and at least six Palestinians killed. The initial presumption was that Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach were taken as political hostages, although no evidence was presented to support this theory. The three were last seen hitchhiking in the area of Gush Etzion, a bloc of Jewish settlements between Jerusalem and the predominantly Palestinian city of Hebron.

As the furor over the abduction grew, over 20,000 Israelis joined an online campaign asking their government to “kill a Palestinian every hour” until the teens are returned safely. Though neither a Facebook page nor the Israeli government’s large-scale military response—coined Brother’s Keeper—should be mistaken as representing the mindset of all Israelis, together they can be taken as a barometer that the nation continues to swing farther and farther to the right, as too many Israelis decide it is easier to despise the Palestinians than it is to make peace with them.

Meanwhile, all around the region the shards of hope lie in the dust.

“When I was younger I wanted to learn Hebrew,” 23-year-old Palestinian named Yamen told me recently in Amman, Jordan. “At one time I thought, ‘I’m from Earth. I’m human. If I can talk to Israelis we can come to an understanding.’ Now I realize that, sure, we can talk, we can drink tea together, but it won’t change anything. I’m afraid violence is the only language that both sides are able to speak.”

Until recently Yamen had lived his entire life in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus. As a refugee he was never granted Syrian citizenship, nor is he allowed to visit the Palestinian territories. When war overtook the Syrian capital and bombs began to perforate the walls of the camp, Yamen assumed the role of a medical rescue worker and did what he could to save lives with little training, supplies or infrastructure. A year later, he helped ferry his mother and two twin sisters to safety in Lebanon after his father-in-law was murdered by a sniper right in front of them while trying to smuggle twenty bags of bread into the camp. Yamen now lives as a refugee outside of Amman.

Although Jordan has the largest number of Palestinians and their descendants in the Middle East, possibly a majority of the country’s population, a new arrival like Yamen has very uncertain status, which is one reason he asked that his last name not be published.

“I now have no place in the world—I’m a refugee twice,” said Yamen. “Of course that’s Assad’s fault, but I believe it’s Israel’s fault first. … Now I know what war really means. I know the guns; I’ve felt the helplessness. I’ve seen people die in front of me. As Palestinians we’ve felt this for over 60 years.”

“Recently, John Kerry failed to convince the Israeli government to release 26 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture” says Yousef Munayyer, Executive Director of the Palestine Center, a D.C. based think-tank. “How are Palestinians supposed to believe the U.S. or diplomacy will be able to resolve bigger issues if they can’t achieve something so small? As long as Palestinians continue to see that diplomacy and their own non-violent resistance are not yielding results, there are going to be those that go down the other path.”

“Kidnapping is the only way for Palestinians to have power in negotiations” continued Yamen, in bitter remarks that are painful to hear. “It’s about showing the other side how much it hurts to be powerless, to be afraid for the life of your child. You can only shout for so long— sometimes you have to slap someone in the face. I don’t want to see the Israeli teens hurt—honestly—no one is trying to be a jerk. We’re just trying to be seen.”

But, inevitably, people are hurt, and more people all the time.

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Currently, 5271 Palestinians are housed in 17 Israeli prisons. At least 196 of these are children under the age of 18. 350 Palestinian political prisoners began a hunger strike last April, some persisting for over two months. Their demands were to be taken to trial and sentenced, instead of being left in the limbo of what often amounts to years of “administrative detention” justified by Israel’s perpetual state of emergency which has been renewed by the Knesset every six months since 1948.

“Israel has closed all avenues to non-violent resistance” said Rania Khalek of the news site Electronic Intifada, speaking before the bodies of the Israeli teens were found. “Prisoners go on hunger strike and Israel threatens them with force-feeding, people are killed for peacefully protesting. Anyone who wants to condemn the kidnapping of settler teens that’s fine…but they also need to condemn the Palestinian children taken from their beds at night and detained without giving a reason. That’s kidnapping, too.”

The fact is, right now we do not know who abducted and murdered the young Israelis or for what reason, but the history of hostage taking in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a long one. (Two Palestinians affiliated with Hamas have been named as suspects in this case: Marwan Qawaskeh and Amer Abu Eisha, from the troubled city of Hebron near the boys’ homes in the Gush Etzion settlement. Israeli forces reportedly blew up the Palestinians’ homes early Tuesday.)

It is a measure of other failures that some of the few “victories” the Palestinians can claim in their long fight with Israel grew out of kidnappings. In 1985, Israel released more than a thousand prisoners in exchange for three IDF soldiers held by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, ostensibly to encourage diplomatic progress. More recently in 2011, Israel freed 1,027 prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier imprisoned by Hamas for 6 years. In all, over the course of three decades, Israel released almost 8,000 detainees in exchange for captured soldiers and abducted civilians.

“If we want to see Palestinians making the choice of non-violent resistance, that choice has to be incentivized,” said Munayyer. “In the absence of enough pressure coming from the U.S and/or the state system, it’s increasingly falling on Palestinian civil society to assume this role. That may be why we’re seeing increased violence, but it’s also why there’s been an increase in the international movement to sanction Israel.” On June 20, the Presbyterian Church in the United States passed a resolution to divest stock in some major U.S. corporations doing business in Israel. “That means 300 people sitting in a room having a nuanced conversation about an issue that just a few years ago they may have known almost nothing about,” said Munayyer.

“The mainstream media tends to deal with these events through an Israeli-sympathetic lens,” said Khalek, “but the interconnectedness that social media allows really has shifted the narrative. Palestinians are now able to share videos and stories of what’s happening in real time…events like this hostage taking, for example, are being more and more understood in context.”

“That mountain over there is Palestine,” said Yamen, pointing to a distant peak outside of Salt, Jordan’s second-largest city. He tied back his thick fuzzy mop of hair, which he hasn’t cut since he was forced to flee Syria over a year ago, saying it reminds him of what was once home. “We just don’t want occupying us to be so easy,” he smiles sadly. “We want Israelis to be afraid, like we are.”

“The Occupation had changed all of us so much, Palestinians and Israelis too,” Yamen said. “Really, I would have been a shepherd if my family had never been forced to leave Tiberias. Maybe I would be a poet, writing about my land. You can’t just erase and displace a people with a history, an identity. Everyone pays the price of what is unacceptable.”