Frida Ghitis

Israelis’ cries of pain met with Arab cheers

In the last few weeks, Palestinians, most likely members of Hamas, kidnapped and then murdered three Israeli teenagers. In an apparent act of revenge, someone, probably a group of extremist Israeli Jews, grabbed an Arab boy in Jerusalem and brutally murdered him.

Both acts were vile, despicable. But there is an enormous difference in the way the communities to which the alleged killers belong reacted to what happened.

Israelis were overwhelmed with grief and anger at the killing of their own boys. Then, they were shocked, horrified that anyone in their community would be responsible for the killing of Mohammad Abu Khdeir.

Israeli police mounted a massive manhunt and quickly captured the alleged killers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Khdeir’s father to express his condolences and to vow the full force of the law would come down on his killers, whom he and many other Israelis unhesitantly labeled “terrorists.”

In the violent clashes that erupted during Khdeir’s funeral, his cousin Tariq was beaten by Israeli police. To Israel’s harshest critics who like to paint a caricature of a monstrous, blood-thirsty state, what happened to the boys confirms their views. But Israel’s security minister immediately launched an investigation of the police action, Israelis were ashamed of what they saw and the authorities, even leaders of rightist parties, declared their unqualified rejection of vigilante attacks against Palestinians.

The country is engaging in a new anguished self-examination on how to stem the rise of fringe extremists in their midst.

By contrast, the kidnapping of Israeli students Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach together with Naftali Fraenkel, who was also a U.S. citizen, was cause for celebration among many Palestinians. Crowds cheered. Members of the Hamas-Fatah unity Palestinian government handed out sweets. Palestinian youths brandished a new salute, raising three fingers showing joy at the triple kidnapping. Cartoons mocked the Jewish boys, even on the official Fatah party website and in the Palestinian Authority newspaper, which praised the abduction.

The exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashal, declared “We congratulate the kidnappers.”

The one major exception to this embrace of the kidnapping of Israelis came from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who, several days after they were taken, rejected the attack, saying “They are human just like us.” As a result, Abbas became the target of sharp condemnation from fellow Palestinians.

Rejecting the abduction of teenagers normally would not count as an act of heroism, but in this case it does. Abbas deserves great credit.

Eighteen days after the Israelis teens were captured, their bodies were found. Their murders brought pain across Israel, unleashing rage in some quarters.

Khdeir’s killing was a horrible, heartbreaking, turn of events; a tragedy immediately and unequivocally rejected by the overwhelming majority of Israelis.

There were pockets of hatred on the Israeli side, with small gatherings in Jerusalem calling for more revenge and some Israelis taking to social media to spew hate.

While the international media focused on the clashes, Israelis quickly organized a large demonstration to reject anti-Arab violence. On the very same day of Khdeir’s killing, more than a thousand people gathered in Jerusalem to raise their voices against violence and racism. Thousands more met in Tel Aviv under the banner “Demonstrating Sanity — No to Revenge, No to Escalation.”

Israelis, by large majorities, wholeheartedly reject violence against Palestinians. In fact, they generally support the use of military force only because they consider it necessary for their survival. Palestinians are firing rockets barrages from Gaza toward Israeli civilian populations.

Surely, there are large numbers of Palestinians who viscerally reject violence by their own people. But they are intimidated into silence. With the notable exception of Abbas, the sounds Israelis hear from the Palestinian side are not calls to refrain from killing Israelis. That is the sad reality.

Already a majority of Israelis support the establishment of a Palestinian state. But their doubts about Palestinian intentions allow those who reject territorial demands to gain power.

The Palestinian people have it in their power to convince Israelis that they can be trusted, that they want to live in peace. Palestinian reaction to the killing of three Israeli teenagers was an opportunity to demonstrate that rejection of violence. It was a missed opportunity.

The killing of Israelis and of Palestinians is a tragedy. The difference in reaction to the murders of those on the opposite side goes a long way in explaining why this conflict lingers.

One day, the calls to end violence by Palestinians will come from the Palestinians side as well. When that happens, an alliance of peace makers can heal wounds and build trust. We can only hope, against the ugly backdrop we see today, that the day will come soon.