Palestine lives in fear of Israeli reprisals following teen deaths
TEL AVIV // Tensions rose in Israel and the West Bank a day after the bodies of three teenagers missing since June 12 were discovered in a field near Hebron.
Israeli airstrikes hit 34 sites in Gaza as fears rose of increasing military action in the strip to punish Hamas and the houses of the two suspects in the murders were blown up by soldiers in Hebron.
Israeli troops also shot dead an 18-year-old Palestinian man in the West Bank city of Jenin.
Meanwhile in Modi’in, outside Jerusalem, a funeral was held for Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frankel, who were found dead on Monday afternoon, buried in a shallow grave in a field in Halhul, just a few miles from the bus stop where they were kidnapped.
Palestinian news agency Ma’an reported that two Palestinians were attacked in Jerusalem, one of whom was chased by a gang of Israelis chanting “Death to Arabs” before being assaulted with clubs and stones. The other victim was a taxi driver, and Israeli police confirmed that they had taken a 17-year-old into custody.
As the burials were taking place, news channels broadcast for the first time a recording of the voice of one of the youths who managed to phone the emergency services at 10.20pm, shortly after they were snatched.
“They kidnapped me,” whispers a voice, identified as that of Gilad Shaar.
“Get your head down, head down,” urges a voice in heavily accented Hebrew, said to be that of one of the kidnappers.
The police were unable to trace the call and, dismissing it as a hoax, did not pass on the information to the army until hours after the teens were reported missing.
The Israeli cabinet is understood to be divided on what further action to take against Hamas, which it blames for the kidnapping.
Hamas has not confirmed or denied its involvement.
So far, 419 Palestinians have been arrested across the West Bank, with only 276 linked to Hamas, and hundreds of homes have been raided. Five Palestinians were killed as Israeli forces searched for the teens.
Speaking to the BBC, IDF spokesman lieutenant colonel Peter Lerner argued that the three-week crackdown was proportionate.
“[Hamas] has a policy of abduction, so we have to inflict a certain amount of pressure on the organisation so they realise it is not worth it,” he said.
But Hamas has warned that further attacks on the group in the West Bank or Gaza would lead to retaliatory action, raising fears in Gaza that further airstrikes or targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders could lead to all out conflict.
“If the occupiers carry out an escalation or a war, they will open the gates of hell on themselves,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.
Mokhamar Abu Sa’da, a professor of political science at Al Azhar University in Gaza, draws parallels between the current situation and the 2012 conflict with Israel, which was sparked after an Israeli airstrike killed Ahmed Jabari, the second in command in Hamas’s military wing.
This came four years after Operation Cast Lead, when almost 1,500 Palestinians – more than half of them civilians, according to estimates – were killed in a three-week war between Israeli forces and Palestinian fighters in Gaza.
It is another war on that scale that terrifies Gazans the most, he said.
“There are those in the resistance movement who welcome the killing of the Israelis. But the majority of people in Gaza are afraid. In the past seven years we have witnessed two wars and we don’t want to see another. [But] the minute that Israel kills a Hamas leader, we expect them to react with long-range missiles.”
The eight-day war in 2012 brought further suffering for ordinary Gazans. More than 100 were killed and 800 injured before an Egypt-sponsored ceasefire ended the fighting. The conflict gutted the territory’s infrastructure and further cut it off from Israel.
Hugh Lovatt, a project officer at the European Council for Foreign Relations, warned that destroying Hamas in Gaza could have unintended consequences for Israel, in that it removes a bulwark against more radical Islamist groups.
He said that even in Gaza, radical Islamist groups were weak and subject to periodic crackdowns by Hamas. More violence and the failure of political Islam in Egypt could also push younger Palestinians towards extremists.
“We can speak to Hamas, but we can’t speak to ISIS,” Mr Lovatt said, referring to the Al Qaeda splinter group fighting in Iraq and Syria.
“The alternative to Hamas for Israel will be far worse, and it will be of Israel’s making,” he said.
There is also the chance that destroying Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank and removing its leaders would lead to increased de-centralisation and an increase in actions unsanctioned by Hamas’s top leadership, “including ‘lone wolf attacks’ as seems to have been the case in this instance”, he said.
There has been much speculation about the effect of the kidnappings on the Palestinian unity government formed in June, which brought to an end seven years of conflict between rival factions Hamas and Fatah. Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu went as far as to blame the unity deal for the kidnappings last month.
Mr Abu Sa’da does not believe the new government is under threat unless Hamas formally takes responsibility for the killing of the three Israeli teenagers.
“The moment it does, that will be a big blow to the unity government – which is already on lifeline support,” he said.
“In Gaza we do not feel that there is a unity government. The siege is still ongoing, the crossings are still closed, the electricity problems, the [non-payment of] salaries.”
While Mr Lovatt agreed on the weakness of the unity government, he did not believe Hamas’s guilt needed to be proven before the alliance dissolved. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas is already under significant pressure from Israel to renege on the deal or else be painted as an accomplice to the kidnappings and open the PA up to punitive sanctions, he said.
“The national unity government’s days seem numbered … With Israel pinning the blame squarely on Hamas it is difficult to see the international community continuing to stand behind the current Palestinian government,” he said.
“Even the EU which has been the most supportive of reconciliation and engagement with Hamas is now finding it difficult to support the idea.”
* with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse
Updated: July 1, 2014 04:00 AM