Will the murder of three teenagers bring Armageddon to the Arab-Israeli conflict?
- By Aaron David MillerAaron David Miller is vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.
Both conventional and unconventional war have been the handmaidens of the Arab-Israeli conflict since its inception. There is violence between Israelis and Palestinians when there is a peace process, and there is violence between them where there isn’t one. Proximity, historical trauma, and the passions of the confrontation over land, identity, and religion seem to demand it.
Moreover, the perverse dance between the occupier and the occupied make violence almost inevitable. Israel wields the power of the strong: the superior military capacity that allows it to impose and humiliate at will, with closures, settlement activity, land confiscation, housing demolitions, and targeted killings. Palestinians wield the power of the weak, a terrifying force in its own right. As the weaker party and with a divided house to boot, some Palestinians disavow violence, but others rationalize it as a necessary (and inevitable) response to occupation. There are those who even undertake and celebrate acts such as the savage murder of three Israeli teenagers in June. In their effort to level the odds, many Palestinians can endorse, acquiesce, and even celebrate the violence that denies the Israelis what they need most: a partner capable of silencing the Palestinians’ guns, rockets, and other weapons.
That deadly, decades-long minuet is no closer today to ending. Indeed, the murder of the teenagers has taken the conflict to a new, dark place, particularly on the Israeli side. The killings will neither provide a moment of clarity or redemption, nor a trip wire to a third intifada.
"There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spark," John Buchan wrote in his famous 1916 novel, Greenmantle. But what’s happening now isn’t the edge of Armageddon. None of the three parties to this particular phase of the conflict — Israel, the Palestinian Authority, or Hamas — has a stake in blowing things up entirely. And Middle East wars do not happen by accident.
Rather, the real significance of the killing of these teenagers goes beyond the normal escalatory cycle to which the world has grown accustomed. It will be both practical and psychological; and it will pay dark dividends, likely shaping Israel’s mindset toward security, the Palestinian problem, and possible reconciliation for some time to come.
Israel has no good options as it seeks to find an effective response to the brutal murders. Finding those who actually committed the crimes will be a priority. But clearly, the Israelis are struggling to determine whether the killings were orchestrated by Hamas, rather than just applauded by the group — or whether they were some combination of the two. (For instance, low-level operatives acting without higher approval.)
Beyond figuring out who committed the murders, there is the difficult question of what to actually do. Arresting more Hamas operatives and ramping up deportations, housing demolitions, and closures have all been tried before in response to terrorism, with little success. The Israelis do not want to open a new war in Gaza and trigger a massive barrage by Hamas using high-trajectory weapons, which have increased in range, lethality, and precision over the years. Nor does making the broader Palestinian public pay for organized acts of terror make much sense. Palestinians will always be angrier at the Israelis than they ever will be at their own leaders, no matter how inept and bloody those leaders may be.
In all likelihood, should Hamas be directly linked to the murders, Israel would target the group directly most likely in Gaza, by bombing Hamas military targets or even targeting the leadership. But as it does that, the Israeli government will also need to preempt what could be a determined effort by Israeli settlers to seek retribution on their own, and that means a broader effort in the West Bank against Hamas infrastructure, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid out on Tuesday, July 1.
And what might Hamas do? It is weak right now and under great pressure from Palestinians in Gaza who are suffering from unemployment, unpaid salaries, and bad economic management. The group doesn’t want a war with Israel right now; it could not handle a full confrontation that caused significant Palestinian suffering.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians themselves don’t seem seized with the idea of a new intifada. Indeed, according to recent polls (from early June) by Palestinian analyst Khalil Shikaki, the public is much more focused on social and economic issues. Before this latest crisis, most believed that the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation would improve economic conditions. Almost 58 percent opposed a return to an armed intifada, while 41 percent supported it.
What’s more, to wage an intifada, Hamas and Fatah groups would have to cooperate very closely on the ground. Palestinian unity has always been a fraught, fictional, and phony enterprise. That’s true now more so than ever. There’s too much bad blood and history between Hamas and Fatah for the unity agreement to be what it would really need to be: an agreement that centralized under one authority all Palestinian guns and a negotiating strategy that abandoned violence and accepted Israel based on a two-state solution.
The agreement was not designed to achieve this; it was too limited from the start. It also carried the risk that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would be put in the dock by Hamas’s actions and statements. Abbas is now tarred in the eyes of the Palestinian public by cooperating too closely with Israel on security, and he is also tarred by Israel for getting into bed with Hamas. His stock, in short, has been diminished. For now, he is resisting Israeli calls to break the unity accord, which Israel opposes more than ever after the murders. If there’s a significant escalation with Israel, and Hamas and large numbers of Palestinians are killed, he’ll be marginalized and sidelined only further — unable to end the occupation through either diplomacy or violence.
More broadly, the entire Palestinian national movement is stuck, unable to find an effective strategy to build a state. And if the Israelis don’t overplay their hand in response to the killings, they just might gain a bit of moral high ground in the eyes of the international community — only further undermining Palestinian influence.
As for the impact of the murders on the formal peace process, the question has been pretty conclusively answered: The notion that violence and terror could provide a clarifying moment and lead to a breakthrough is as illusory as using a prayer summit to produce a two-state solution. Netanyahu’s recent statements after the murders, hardening Israeli security requirements in the Jordan Valley, strongly suggest that this process is closed for the season.
That said, it is also a willful denial of reality that the murders were caused by the collapse of the peace process and the failure to release prisoners. This kind of logic is specious and dangerous. The murderers’ motives may never be known, but over time, some of the worst Palestinian terror has occurred when there were actually serious hopes and prospects for negotiations. Consider the spring of 1996, when four bombs in nine days, orchestrated by Hamas and others, claimed the lives of 60 Israelis in a clear effort to prevent Shimon Peres’s election — and therefore halt the continuation of the peace process after the murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Ultimately, the trauma and memory of these killings are likely to endure and rival those that took place in Maalot and Kiryat Shmona during the 1970s or perhaps — more recently — the killings of Koby Mandell and Yosef Ishran, two Israeli boys who went missing in May 2001 and were found beaten to death in a cave in the West Bank.
Israeli views of Palestinians will harden. Hamas will be seen more than ever as an enemy. And Abbas will be seen as feckless. To be sure, Palestinian security forces are limited in where they can operate, and they cannot be seen to act as Israel’s policemen. But those nuances are lost on much of the Israeli public, which will be less inclined than ever to give Palestinians the benefit of the doubt.
Palestinians won’t feel much sympathy either. Many already believe that an Israeli who lives in the West Bank is a fair target. At the very least, they will most assuredly argue, when they have their own losses to mourn, why should we care about Israel’s?
Maybe one day peace, or something like it, will come to this land. But that day is not today.