The media's coverage of Israel's Operation #BringBackOurBoys ignores the daily abuse suffered by Palestinian children living under occupation, explains.
AFTER THREE teenaged Israeli settlers went missing, the Israeli military targeted the Palestinian population of the West Bank for collective punishment, putting tens of thousands under siege and curfew, and arresting hundreds more. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cynically used the occasion to further demonize and terrorize Palestinians--as well as settling scores with Hamas.
On June 12, three Israeli teenagers went missing, allegedly after hitchhiking from school to their homes at Gush Etzion, a cluster of settlements housing some 70,000 Israeli Jews. Settlements--considered illegal under international law--are one of the most visible and hated mechanisms by which Israel has expanded its grip on Palestinian territory, demolishing homes and displacing countless Palestinians.
Hitchhiking can play an ideological function for settlers, serving as a display of ownership of the land. In the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank, firmly under settlers' control, hitchhiking is not unusual--but that confidence was shattered when the three boys never arrived home and have yet to be found.
By last weekend, a panic had swept Israel, with every aspect of the case examined on television and radio, and in newspapers. Crowds of thousands gathered to pray for the boys. Were they alive? Had they been taken prisoner? And if so, who had taken them? A Twitter hashtag, #BringBackOurBoys, was created by graduates of the University of Haifa's hasbara--Hebrew for pro-Israel propaganda--department. The hashtag was designed to capitalize on the success of #BringBackOurGirls, used when several hundred Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped by a militant Islamic group.
#BringBackOurBoys seized Twitter by storm, as Israelis demanded punishment of the perpetrators. Without any evidence as to who the perpetrators may have been, the Israeli state puts its crosshairs on the Palestinian people as a whole, collectively holding them responsible for the boys' disappearance.
Within days of the boys' disappearance, the Israeli state swung into action, deploying 2,500 soldiers--10 times as many as Obama just sent to Iraq--aimed at the civilian population of the West Bank.
Entire Palestinian areas were shut down and remain so, terrorizing tens of thousands. "In Hebron, the army is entering homes in door-to-door searches in the western part of the city," according to a Mondoweiss report by Allison Deger.
Entry into Gaza has also been tightened, which was already virtually unreachable from the West Bank. No one and nothing is allowed in or out of these areas, except Israeli-designated "humanitarian aid." Early on June 17, the Israeli air force bombed four targets in Gaza, despite a civilian population trapped by the ongoing blockades.
One week into Israel's offensive, Mondoweiss documented the far-reaching Israeli offensive:
Israeli army vehicles are inside of Hebron, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, Qalqilya and Salfit. The army is also in the towns of al-Bireh (Ramallah district), Jalazone refugee camp (Ramallah district), Azzun (near Qalqilya), Abud (Ramallah district), Khibata, Beit Fajr (Bethlehem district) (Ramallah District) and Tel (Nablus district). The only population center in the West Bank that does not have Israeli soldiers patrolling and carrying out arrests is in the resort city of Jericho, the first municipality declared under the control of the Palestinian Authority.
The Israeli military has also raided offices and arrested at least 200 civilians so far, including former government officials, professors, religious figures and particularly those affiliated with Hamas. At least five people have been killed in actions that have locked down and terrorized tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians.
Such indiscriminate targeting of an entire population is not new for the Israeli military, but remains a violation of the Geneva Convention's prohibition on collective punishment, which states, "No persons may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited."
A collection of Palestinian human rights organizations issued a joint denunciation of the collective punishment, echoed a day later by an Amnesty International statement calling "on the Israeli authorities to cease all measures amounting to collective punishment which have been imposed on the Palestinian population in the West Bank and elsewhere since the abduction."
Predictably, operations focusing on collective punishment have failed to discover the boys, nor did they uncover any evidence of who was responsible. But this hasn't stopped Prime Minister Netanyahu from declaring, "Those who perpetrated the abduction of our youths were members of Hamas."
Hamas, always in Israel's crosshairs, had been the object of particular ire since last month's reconciliation with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah faction--which Netanyahu did not fail to mention: "The same Hamas that [Abbas] made a unity government with. This has severe repercussions."
An Opportunity to Undermine Hamas
Netanyahu justified the military incursions by asserting that Hamas was behind the disappearances, which were certainly kidnappings, according to Netanyahu. But as of this writing, no proof has been furnished to support these claims. Needless to say, this hasn't created the slightest hesitation among Israeli officials.
In fact, there is good reason to doubt Hamas' involvement. At least three militant groups have claimed responsibility. None of the claims seem particularly credible to Israeli intelligence--a portion of which seems to suspect that any kidnapping would have been the work of individuals acting on their own.
For its part, Hamas has unequivocally rejected any suggestion that it played a role in the disappearance of the three boys. In the words of a Hamas spokesperson, the accusation is "stupid and baseless." Hamas has historically taken credit for past actions without hesitation, lending the denial added credibility.
However specious Netanyahu's claims may be, they have so far succeeded. The mainstream media has uncritically accepted the accusations, casually reporting them as facts.
This gullible attitude has encouraged further wild statements from Israeli officials, such as Netanyahu's reprimand to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry: "This is the result of bringing a terrorist organization into the government." Netanyahu was referring to the recent reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, which have pledged to form a unified national government by late June or early July--though John Kerry had little to do with it.
Other Israeli officials have repeated the claim that there's a connection between the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation and the boys' disappearance. According to Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon:
When the Fatah-Hamas government was formed last month, the international community quickly recognized and welcomed it...The international community has been given a second chance to correct its moral, diplomatic and strategic mistakes. Wall-to-wall condemnations of the kidnapping are called for, as well as placing responsibility on the Palestinian government, including the threat of taking physical, economic and diplomatic steps against it.
The fabricated link between the two events is only being made because the Israeli government sees an opportunity to undermine Hamas, a strategic priority for years. Often, it has been the Palestinian population at large which paid the price.
In the run-up to the 2006 election in which Hamas was expected to do well, Israel arrested 450 members involved in election work. When Hamas won anyway, Israel worked with Hamas' then-rival Fatah to foment a coup, which ultimately failed.
Israel clamped down on the ability of ordinary Palestinians to move between Gaza and the West Bank, denied the new Hamas government millions in tax revenues, and orchestrated sanctions that stopped all international aid from entering Gaza. A land, air and sea blockade on Gaza continues to this day.
Meanwhile, Fatah has served as a reliable friend of Israel. As the "official" Palestinian government, it could be counted on to preside over and police the occupied Palestinian population, relieving Israel of that burden. And its participation in the unending "peace process" gave the proceedings a veneer of respectability.
As popular interest waned in endless negotiations over a two-state solution, Fatah's legitimacy suffered. This flagging popularity brought it into a partnership with Hamas, although "this is a unity based on the short-term survival needs of the rival factions," according to SocialistWorker.org's Eric Ruder, "not an agreement to adopt a promising new strategy in response to the failure of the 'peace process.'"
While the partnership might not hold any real promise for Palestinian liberation, there is still plenty for Israel to hate. Israel has again and again shown that it will attempt to crush any challenges, however temporary, to its domination, and the rightward lurch of Israel's political spectrum shows no signs of abating.
This is clear in popular sectors of Israeli society as well. In one of the more chilling responses to the missing settler boys, a Facebook page went up calling for the murder of a Palestinian every hour until the boys are found. As of this writing, the page has not been taken down--and in fact had more than 20,000 likes.
The society exuding this level of racism has simultaneously used its military superiority to force Palestinians to adapt to ever-more extreme conditions. One aspect of this was cheerily reported in a Jerusalem Post article trumpeting Operation: #BringBackOurBoys:
There have been few significant clashes during the raids, a reflection of the fact that Palestinian areas have grown accustomed to nightly IDF raids launched on a regular basis in recent years...This contrasts with the situation 10 years ago, when many raids in villages would turn into violent clashes.
The intense focus across Israel on bringing back three teenagers is in no way extended to the many Palestinian boys rotting in Israeli prisons. If the loss of three boys is a terrible thing, then Palestinians must suffer through a permanent crisis, unable to ever ensure the safety of their children. Any campaign to bring back their boys would have Palestinians busy producing a lengthy list.
As of April, "196 Palestinian children were imprisoned and prosecuted in the Israeli military court system, a decrease of 3 percent from March," reported Defence for Children International. Nearly 30 of these children are as young as 14 and 15. All are boys.
Of these children abducted and held by the state of Israel, more than 20 percent were held in solitary confinement. Defence for Children International has detailed the terrifying circumstances when Palestinian boys are abducted and held in solitary confinement:
In 34 out of 40 cases (85 percent), children held in solitary confinement reported being arrested from their homes in the middle of the night. Children report that heavily armed Israeli soldiers arrest them in violent circumstances during night raids on their family homes. Children are often woken up by the sound of Israeli soldiers banging on the front door before a family member opens the door or the soldiers force their way in, storming the home.
Once the child in question is identified, "his hands will be tied with plastic cords, most likely behind his back, and he will be blindfolded and led to a military vehicle." There is a 95 percent chance this child will not be formally charged. Instead, the hope is that the child will be so terrified, the Israeli captors will be able to coerce information from them. Similar night raids are now happening across Hebron, as the search for the three missing settlers becomes another pretext to terrorize the Palestinian population.
It is a sign of how depraved life is under occupation that children placed in solitary confinement under terrifying circumstances should perhaps consider themselves lucky--since they are not one of the 1,518 Palestinian children murdered by Israeli occupation forces in the 13 years since the second Palestinian Intifada (uprising). This adds up to one Palestinian child killed every three days.
Much of Israel remains unashamed of these facts, as Operation #BringBackOurBoys should make clear. At a moment when the two-state solution has lost credibility, Israel has cynically used this episode to again present itself as the perpetual victim.
But it is impossible to square that idea with the reality of Israel's actions over the past week: the collective punishment of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, living under constant military curfew, dread and insecurity.