Three Israeli teenagers who were presumed kidnapped when they disappeared while hitchhiking near an Israeli settlement in Hebron have been found dead to the north of the city.
The three, 16-year-olds Naftali Frenkel and Gilad Shaar, and 19-year-old Eyal Yifrach, were reportedly killed close to the time of their disappearance on June 12.
What comes next could be an escalation in an already sweeping government crackdown in the West Bank that could push the Palestinian Authority (PA) of Mahmoud Abbas – a partner of sorts for Israeli security interests in the West Bank – towards the brink of collapse.
Since the boys' disappearance, the West Bank has witnessed the revival of collective punishment by Israel, the arrest of over 400 people, many of them activists in the Islamist Hamas movement, and at least five Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces. Israel has also approved more West Bank settlement expansion.
Meanwhile, the Israeli public has demanded harsh action. Palestinians, subjected to even greater controls on their movements and more deaths, have seethed.
Within days of their disappearance, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the teenagers' abduction on Hamas, without providing any evidence (Hamas denied involvement.) Mr. Netanyahu also set his sights on Mr. Abbas, whom he blamed for striking a unity deal with Hamas, which has ruled Gaza Strip separately from the PA since 2007.
An adviser to Israeli Defense Minister Danny Danon told USA Today that Netanyahu said at an emergency security cabinet meeting this evening that "Abu Mazen will have a price to pay." Abu Mazen is Abbas' nickname.
But Netanyahu will have to carefully weigh what he does next. There are rumors of mobs of West Bank settlers gathering to carry out vigilante attacks against Palestinians and Palestinian property. Israeli government inaction will infuriate a large pocket of Netanyahu's constituency. However, weakening Abbas and the PA to punish him for something he had no control over is unlikely to serve Israeli interests.
Lost in the emotional issue of the missing Israeli children are the receding hopes among Palestinians of ever getting control of the independent state that was the promise of the Oslo Accords. The US, after getting nowhere for the past two years, has quietly abandoned its latest effort to revive peace talks; Martin Indyk, the US envoy focused on possible meaningful talks, resigned last week.
Hebron is a case in point. Its settlers, who number less than 1,000, are among the most militant in the West Bank, and frequently harass the city's Palestinian population of about 200,000.The settlers are protected by the IDF, have been given exclusive reign in parts of the city, and have access to a network of Israel-only roads. Their presence is among the most disruptive of any Israeli settlement, which feeds enormous local anger. One of the murdered boys studied in a yeshiva in the city - the other two at a yeshiva on a religious Zionist kibbutz a short distance from town.
Against the death toll of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these deaths are just a drop in the bucket. From 2000-2007, a period that includes the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, 4,228 Palestinians were killed and 1,024 Israelis were killed. Of these, 971 of the dead were children or teens, and about 854 of these Palestinian.
Though the situation has generally been less violent in recent years, the killing on both sides continues. Late 2008 and early 2009 saw Israel's "Operation Cast Lead" in Gaza, in response to militant rocket fire, which resulted in about 1,400 Palestinians dead and four Israeli dead. Of the Palestinian dead, 345 were children or teens. Since that operation ended, 571 Palestinians were killed and 25 Israelis were killed through May of this year. Of the Palestinian dead in that period, 84 were children or teens and five were Israeli children or teens.
Will the relentless revenge cycle be kicked up again in response to these latest deaths? Unfortunately, signs point in that direction at the moment.