In the space of less than a week, Israel finds itself trapped in an ungovernable maelstrom of violence. Its root cause is the Netanyahu government laxness in the face of the traumatic discovery on July 30 of the bodies of the Israeli teenagers Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach, kidnapped and slain by Hamas. This was followed two days later by the murder of a 16-year old Palestinian, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, from Jerusalem, which set off three days of violent riots by masked Palestinians in Jerusalem suburbs. They hurled rocks and firebombs, disrupting traffic and starting four large fires around the city.
Scores of Palestinian rockets thundered non-stop from the Gaza Strip in the meantime. Saturday night, their range was expanded to three southern towns, Beersheba, Ashkelon and Ofakim. Iron Dome only intercepted a fraction of these launches.
Friday night, the ill wind spread from Jerusalem to the Israeli Arab towns of the Triangle in central Israel, where masked men waylaid cars outside Qalanswa and, after determining the drivers were Jewish, pulled them out, beat them up and torched their vehicles.
From Taiibeh and Umm al-Fahm, masked youths waving Palestinian flags hurled rocks at passing highway vehicles and neighboring Jewish villages, rolling burning tires from Baq’a al-Garbiyeh. Riot police fought the rampages with tear gas and stun grenades and make dozens of arrests.
Saturday night, this rampage also spread to Nazareth.
The most striking feature of this breakdown of security has been the passive response of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and the Israeli chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.
In the beginning, Netanyahu appered to hear the popular fury and agony aroused by the murder of the three Israeli boys, whose killers were heard on a police tape laughing and celebrating after shooting them at point blank range.
He said at their funerals: “Even Satan could find no revenge for the blood of a child,” and: “Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay.” He said that punishment would not only be applied to the kidnappers but to their confederates in the kidnap conspiracy.
But instead, after the funerals, the IDF scaled down its counter-terror offensive on the West Bank. The hunt for the two kidnappers, Marwan al Qawasme and Omar Abu Ayshe, continued along with detentions of local Hamas activists and the shutting down the charity societies and other profit-earning enterprises supporting the movement.
Instead of being made to pay in earnest, Hamas was allowed to unleash a ferocious new barrage of rockets against Israel from its Gaza launching pads. They were greeted only with feeble Israeli air strikes of evacuated Hamas and Jihad Islami facilities. But in the face of one of Israel’s most acute security crises in recent years, the Israeli army was held in check.
In fact, the prime minister decided to outsource the solution. Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Qatar were entrusted with trying to persuade Hamas to accept a truce and halt its rocket barrage.
Hamas immediately raised unacceptable conditions. But even so, Israel knows from long experience that for this Islamist extremist group, a ceasefire accord with Israel is non meant to be binding, only a temporary shift for avoiding punishment.
The root problem remained unsolved, only shelved for a while, until a new crisis comes along to make Israelis forget what happened. This process is already in train in the case of the grave menace posed by a nuclear Iran, which has been blocked out of popular awareness by the new calamaties.
Very few people noticed that in the latest round of P5+1 negotiations with Iran, the Obama administration agreed to leave Tehran in possession of all its nuclear facilities so long as it remained six months away from break-out capacity to a bomb. Netanyahu’s epic failure to make good on his vow to prevent a nuclear Iran was thoroughly obscured by the disasters circling around Hebron, Jerusalem, Sderot and Qalanswa.
Leaving crises in the pending tray until a more urgent calamity relegates them to the bottom drawer is a long-held Netanyahu strategy which is now jumping back in his face.
The messages Israel sent Hamas Friday, July 4: ”Quiet will be greeted with quiet,” and “The IDF does not seek escalation” were not treated as a fair offer, but an exhibition of weakness. Like the bombardment of empty buildings in Gaza, it eroded the IDF’s deterrent capacity and its reputation as the stalwart guardian of national security.
This weakness was not just seized on by Hamas, but by the Palestinian, the Israeli Jewish and Israel Arab streets, who grabbed the reins of the current crisis.
It was never up to the Egyptian president or the Jordanian monarch to resolve the predicaments of Israelis and Palestinians. They should never have been put in that position. Israel’s prime minister and his defense command one of the most competent armies and counter-terror forces in the world. It should have been allowed to do its job of keeping the country safe from enemies.
Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich declared Saturday night: “We have zero tolerance for lawbreakers. They will be brought to justice. We will not permit innocent people to be wantonly harmed.” The trouble is that it is not up to the police to fix the decline of national and personal security in Israel. The forces of law and order are brought in when all else fails. Since those who should be responsible are still not playing their assigned roles, the escalation of violence inside Israel and on the Gaza front is to be expected.