There Is No Moral Equivalent to the Murder of Three Israeli Teenagers

The murder of three Israeli teenagers has reignited debates about guilt, justice, and retribution in the Middle East. But the Palestinians have more to answer for.

Baz Ratner/Reuters

Here’s the good news: Despite the cynical speculation of some, the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers was neither a hoax nor a Mossad plot. Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel were murdered shortly after being abducted and then buried under rocks in an open field. The killers remain at large, but they are not unknown.

The bad news is that if debunking a shameful myth is the very best news to arise out of this barbaric incident, then there really is no good news. It’s just the latest reminder of what passes for diplomacy in a region far richer in terrorism than oil, and offers yet further reasons for Israelis to be suspicious of peace. Worse still, it supplies more evidence that a people who throw candy in celebration of kidnapped children have something on their mind other than nation building.

The Israeli government has vowed retaliation against Hamas. The unity government that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas established with Hamas is now in shambles. Surely peace negotiations will not resume if an unrepentant Hamas remains a partner.

Yet, West Bank Palestinians wonder why they must pay the price for the misdeeds of Hamas, who are based in Gaza. For them the 18-day search for the Israeli teens and the manhunt for their captors was tantamount to collective punishment. Thousands of homes were searched and 400 Palestinians—most with Hamas affiliations—were arrested. Meanwhile, in response to 18 rockets fired by Hamas into southern Israel, resulting in no casualties, Israel retaliated with 34 airstrikes inside Gaza, killing three militants.

Even before the dead Israeli teenagers were discovered, it was widely reported that Israeli soldiers killed five rock-throwing Palestinians (some of whom were teenagers) in the West Bank. They, too, should be factored into the ledgers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where the books are never closed and audits are always postponed without a final reckoning.

After all, the shortening of the lives of these Palestinian teenagers constitutes the tit-for-tat endgame of unmeasured suffering on both sides. Under the ancient laws of retaliation, the lex talionis, the lives of five Palestinians should cancel the debt created by Hamas in murdering three Israeli teenagers.

The problem, however, is not just one of proportionate loss but the casualness with which many insist on drawing a moral equivalence between acts of terror and self-defense, between the purposeful kidnapping of teenagers hitching a ride and the inadvertent killing of teenagers who are hurling homemade grenades at armed soldiers going house-to-house in search of three boys who they don’t realize are already dead.

There is no moral equivalence here, and there is a danger in continuing to make these false comparisons. Slippery calls to moral relativism make it impossible to render moral judgments vital to distinguishing right from wrong—indeed, deciding which party is the greater impediment to peace. President Obama’s own confusion as to the relative grievances on each side of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a perfect example of this distortion of moral clarity, which has left him paralyzed as a peacemaker.

This situation is not new to the region or to these parties. Disproportionate loss among Palestinians has been endemic to their struggle, and Israel’s experience with Palestinian terror has made them gun-shy about peace, all the while making their guns morally necessary. When Israel invaded Gaza in 2012, bringing to an end otherwise unabated rocket attacks, there was a disproportionate number of Palestinians deaths relative to Israeli losses. Can 10,000 rockets that miss their intended targets be measured the same as Israel hitting the bull’s-eye on buildings that warehouse stockpiles of weapons, along with innocent people, too?

Everyone has an opinion on what Israel can’t do to defend itself, but those very same people remarkably find themselves tongue-tied when asked what Israel can and should do.

Palestinians must be held accountable for their love affair with terror. Years of the Israeli occupation are no excuse for barbarism. If history had gone differently in the United States and African Americans had relied on domestic acts of terrorism rather than peaceful nonviolent resistance as a way of gaining their civil rights, no one would have excused the murder of white teenagers as justified retribution for years of pernicious racism and inhuman slavery. Similarly, no one would tolerate Native Indian-Americans seeking to vindicate the Trail of Tears by bringing tears to the eyes of suddenly childless white American mothers.

It’s important to remember that Palestinians are not the only ones who can claim the status of human rights victims. Neither the Kurds, Tibetans, Congolese, nor Sudanese have responded with acts of terror against their far worse persecutors. Why are Palestinians granted a license of bloodlust as an excusable remedy for their suffering?

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Human life may be precious, but the way it gets taken away is not always the same. Children who are kidnapped and killed to serve the twisted ends of a liberation movement are not casualties of war. And Palestinian mothers who push their children toward jihad and martyrdom are not the same as the three grieving Israeli mothers whose boys never made it back home.