Israel has taken cynical advantage of colonists’ deaths (Abdel Bari Atwan in Gulf News)

If Israel continues to attack Gaza, it is very likely that we will witness a third intifada, but this time it will be different as public opinion around the world has undergone a sea-change

    • By Abdel Bari Atwan | Special to Gulf News

    • Published: 20:00 July 8, 2014

    • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

The deaths of three young Israeli colonists and the brutal revenge killing of Palestinian teenager Mohammad Abu Khudair have unleashed a cycle of violence and an ominously familiar Israeli PR blitz. When the sinister face of Mark Negev appears on the world’s television screens, the besieged citizens of Gaza begin to cower in anticipation of another Operation Cast Lead under the banner of “retaliation”. All of this we have come to expect, but the entry of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) onto the regional stage may produce entirely new and unforeseen consequences for a belligerent Israel.

Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel (both just 16) and Eyal Yifrah (19) were kidnapped on June 12 near their family homes in the illegal colony of Gush Etzion. For the next 18 days, the world’s media was saturated with emotional descriptions of the hunt for them, then the terrible discovery of their bodies and finally the heart-rending scenes of grief at their funerals. World leaders sent personal messages of condolence to the families and assured Israel of their whole-hearted support in its efforts to eradicate all “terrorists”.

Yet, the circumstances of these boys’ deaths remain a mystery. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately announced that “Hamas will pay a heavy price”, but Hamas has denied involvement. A new reason to demonise Hamas was timely and convenient, given that its recent reconciliation with Fatah is perceived as representing an existential threat to Israel. The world’s mainstream media has largely accepted and repeated Israel’s unsubstantiated verdict. What is not in doubt is the horrific manner in which 17-year-old Abu Khudair died. He was abducted from the northern occupied Jerusalem suburb of Shuafat, forced to drink petrol and then set on fire while still alive. The three men who have confessed to his murder (Israeli “extremists”) had attempted to abduct a little nine-year-old the day before. That story has been largely ignored.

Nor did the world’s media, or politicians, mention that — in the time between the Israeli teens’ disappearance and the discovery of their bodies — seven Palestinians were killed by the Israeli army. Indeed, since 2000, 1,405 Palestinian children have been killed by Israel with apparent impunity. The media largely failed to communicate the fact that the Israeli teenagers were living in an illegal colony where violence towards Arabs is widely encouraged. That is not, of course, to say that these children deserved to die, but isn’t it obvious that if Israel steals land from Palestinian families, violence is a predictable consequence?

Israel has cynically taken advantage of the killings to justify and agitate for the colony movement, mixing calls for colony expansion with national mourning. Netanyahu’s government is dominated by extremist Zionist members — most notably his Minister of Economy, Naftali Bennett, who is also leader of the ‘Jewish Home’ party — who believe that Jews are divinely entitled to the whole of Biblical Israel. Such views underlie Netanyahu’s intransigence and failure to halt colony-building during the peace talks. In an attempt to get the nation to endorse this unpalatable ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, Tel Aviv has re-invented the colonists as heroic pioneers in the midst of marauding hordes of murderous savages, quite like a Hollywood western.

The sensationalistic and irresponsible way in which the colonist teens’ deaths were reported has produced vicious public displays of racism. Armed thugs have taken to the streets of occupied Jerusalem shouting “death to Arabs” and “may your village burn”. Hate crime against Arabs are rampant and, according to reports from colleagues on the ground, largely ignored by the Israeli police.

Politically, it is expedient for Israel to use the tragedy as a pretext to strike Hamas and attacks on its military installations in Gaza were launched as soon as the colonists’ funerals were over. Low-level aggression continues. On Monday night, the Israeli air force killed at least eight people in Gaza and the Strip has had no electricity since last week when warplanes started targeting civilian infrastructure. Relatives in Gaza tell me that everyone is living in fear of an onslaught like that of 2008-2009, when Operation Cast Lead took the lives of almost 1,500 Palestinians.

Inability to challenge effectively

Palestine’s politicians are divided over how to respond to Israel’s latest aggression and public anger over the murder of Abu Khudair and the beating of his 15-year-old cousin Tareq Abu Khudair by Israeli police. Palestinian National Authority (PNA) President Mahmoud Abbas has failed to reflect the mood on the streets and even his most moderate colleagues have expressed frustration with his inability to effectively challenge and restrain Israel. Many conclude that Abbas is no longer motivated by the rights and reasonable expectations of the Palestinians, but by his desire not to displease Tel Aviv and risk losing office with all its attendant privileges. Last month, Abbas horrified the Arab world when he told delegates at the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation conference in Jeddah that security coordination with Israel was “in the Palestinian interest” … even as Israeli soldiers killed five Palestinians and ransacked villagers’ homes while searching for the missing colonist teens.

Despite all provocation, Hamas has to date responded with restraint. The rockets it has launched across the border into largely uninhabited desert around Sderot are by way of a warning. The Islamist group possesses much more effective, modern missiles, capable of reaching occupied Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. While Israel would like to see a renewed schism between Hamas and Fatah (in order to ‘divide and rule’), Hamas engaged in Egypt-brokered truce negotiations with Tel Aviv last Sunday. For the time being at least, it has also managed to rein-in radical factions under its umbrella that are calling for a more robust response.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian streets are seething with rage. Youths armed with rocks have engaged in sporadic running battles with the Israeli army and police. If Israel continues to attack Gaza, it is very likely that we will witness a third intifada … but this time it will be different. Public opinion around the world has undergone a sea-change. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel is gaining traction as social media allows for uncensored reporting of the real picture. Earlier this week, Britain’s largest Trade Union, Unite, branded Israel “Guilty of the crime of Apartheid”, committing its 1.5 million members to taking “bolder steps like those that were taken against the South African apartheid regime” and to fighting the “ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians”.

It is likely, then, that a third intifada will draw widespread international sympathy and popular support. I believe that Israel is hesitant to provoke an all-out confrontation for the reasons outlined above, but also because of an entirely new development. Last Sunday, Mossad chief Tamir Pardo told a private gathering of top Israeli business people that the greatest threat to Israel’s security is no longer Iranian nuclear warheads, but the failure to come to an understanding with the Palestinians. And he is right.

Arab anger has found a new vehicle in the form of Isil, the salafist-jihadist movement that has swept through Syria and Iraq and declared the establishment of an Islamic ‘caliphate’ on the substantial, contiguous, areas of land it has captured. Israel has a border with Syria and Isil is making inroads into Jordan. It is clear from posts on social media platforms that hot-headed Palestinian youths are signing up to Isil ideology and see in this ultra-radical organisation the possibility of salvation from the injustices perpetrated on them by Israel.

While an intifada of stones is easily contained, Isil is in possession of highly sophisticated weapons and military vehicles, captured from the regular armies of Iraq and Syria.

If Isil launches a concerted attack on Israel, at its borders and from within, Tel Aviv may well live to rue the day that it refused to talk to Hamas. Because, compared to Isil, Hamas is a pussycat.

Abdel Bari Atwan is the editor-in-chief of digital newspaper Rai alYoum: You can follow him on Twitter at

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