On Thursday, June 12, three settler Yeshiva students hitchhiking through the West Bank were supposedly kidnapped. Within hours Israeli security leaders announced the kidnapping was the work of Hamas, though failed to present any evidence to the claim. Hamas, which recently signed on to a transitional unity government with it’s long-time rival Fatah in the Palestinian Authority has not claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, and instead some of its members questioned what benefit this action would bring the Islamist movement at this time. The Real News’ Lia Tarachansky and Shir Hever discuss the events as they’ve unfolded since Thursday and how the Israeli media and public responded.
SHIR HEVER, POLITICAL ECONOMIST AND ANALYST: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Shir Hever in Germany.
LIA TARACHANSKY, ISRAEL-PALESTINE CORRESPONDENT: And I’m Lia Tarachansky in Tel Aviv.
HEVER: Today we want to talk about the issue of prisoners, mainly the hunger strike of Palestinian administrative detainees in Israeli jails. And this is a story that has now received another aspect, because there are three Israeli citizens who are presumed kidnapped, and there is a lot of media coverage of that presumed kidnapping.
TARACHANSKY: Really, when you open the Hebrew press here in Israel, just as around any sort of war or major point of contention in the conflict, all of the press is focused entirely on what the Israeli government and army is doing and is repeating verbatim much of what we’re seeing in the press conferences from the government.
BRIG. GEN. MOTI ALMOZ, IDF SPOKESPERSON (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): And since this morning, we have been engaged in a military operation aimed at searching for and finding the missing. The last few hours, we have put a lot of effort into obtaining intelligence and trying to track down what has happened to these boys since they disappeared.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Hamas terrorists carried out Thursday’s kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers. We know that for a fact. These teenagers were kidnapped, and the kidnapping was carried out by Hamas members.
NEWS REPORTER, CHANNEL 2: The government is reportedly weighing the option of expelling senior West Bank Hamas leaders to the Gaza Strip.
During a ceremony on Monday honoring reserve soldiers with rewards of excellence, defense minister Moshe Ya’alon spoke of the IDF’s commitment to find the terrorists responsible for kidnapping the three teens on Thursday. He told those in attendance that the security establishment will not rest until they bring the boys home safely.
TARACHANSKY: So what we do know is that three settler teenagers were hitchhiking in the West Bank near the settlement of Gush Etzion. There was a car burned down that was found near the place where they went missing. They went missing on Friday. And since then, the Israeli army has more or less shut down the West Bank, specifically the city of Hebron, which is the closest big Palestinian city where there’s a strong support for Hamas. And the Israeli government, through the Israeli army, has been, since then, repressing and arresting en masse all members of Hamas in the West Bank. Since Friday, they’ve arrested 150 people, including most of the members of the newly formed unity parliament in Ramallah.
HEVER: What we’re seeing here, I think, is a move, a show of force by Israel, which is actually played out in the arena of the media, because the story that makes headlines, the story that wins in the international media, (of course in the Israeli media, but that’s of lesser importance) is the story of the presumed kidnapping and the Israeli response, but not the fact that the hunger strike of Palestinian detainees have entered the 15th day. Without that information, without knowing also that the Israeli government has been implementing very rapid legislation processes in order to try to allow force-feeding of Palestinian prisoners, we really can’t understand this new story that’s emerging about the presumed kidnapping.
TARACHANSKY: And there is of course the larger political context. Before the supposed kidnapping of the teenagers, last week what we saw was that after 50 days of hunger strike, many of the prisoners were transferred to hospitals where doctors said that unlike the government pressure, they’re not going to force-feed them, after which the Israeli prime minister said, well, if you’re not going to force-feed them, we will find other doctors who will, and started pushing forward legislation that would legalize what by international law is considered torture.
But that was the last in a long series of events in the Israeli politics that has weakened Netanyahu and has been the reason why it has shown a huge show of force. We saw the election of Reuven Rivlin for the nominal role of president of Israel, which has a seven- to nine-year term. Rivlin being a personal opponent of Netanyahu, this was huge defeat to him, and he tried to do everything in his power to stop this election, including trying to cancel the whole institution of presidency.
And we saw that the Hamas and Fatah unity itself was something that Netanyahu was strongly opposing, but it happened regardless. And he is now using this moment to clamp down on Hamas, even though Hamas officials, many of them have actually expressed that this kidnapping doesn’t help the Palestinian political agenda if they were the ones responsible behind the kidnapping; it would actually be a step backwards from what they’ve achieved with the unity talks, at least on the international arena.
HEVER: Yeah, Netanyahu’s words ring very hollow now, when his response to these unfolding events is to lay all the blame on the unity government of Hamas and Fatah, even though that government hasn’t really had any time to make any decisions. And I think it’s very clear that it’s a cynical move, because Netanyahu has been outflanked by the international community on this point and by Abbas. Already there are a lot of governments who have accepted or recognized the right of Palestinians to have this unity government, an interim government, until election time. It was absolutely predictable that Israel will find some kind of excuse in order to escalate the situation and try to provoke Palestinians into a violent conflict, in which Israel, of course, has the advantage. And this sort of tactic has been used by Israel so many times, I think by now everybody knows that this is how it plays out.
TARACHANSKY: Catherine Ashton, the foreign minister of the European Union, issued the following statement:
“Such acts can only undermine international efforts to encourage a resumption of peace negotiations. We are following developments closely and remain in constant contact with our Israeli and Palestinian counterparts.”
“The EU encourages continued close cooperation between the Israel and Palestinian security services to ensure the swift release of the abductees.”
–Catherine Ashton, First Vice President, European Commission
Now, inside Israel, the Israeli public responded with a mass of solidarity with the families of the kidnapped, including a social media campaign with the hashtag return our boys home. And we’ve seen mass prayers in Jerusalem at the Wailing Wall and all over yeshivas all over Israel. On Monday there was a big protest outside the Gush Etzion settlement, which is where the teenagers are presumed to be kidnapped, where hundreds of settlers showed up and burned down Palestinian flags while chanting racist slogans.
CROWD (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): If you don’t return the boys, we’ll burn down your territories. Death to the Arabs. [Prophet] Muhammad is dead.
TARACHANSKY: There was also a page opened on Facebook which said, for every hour that the teenagers are kidnapped, one Palestinian terrorist should be executed.
HEVER: I think you’re talking about two different movements, actually, and we should make a distinction between two kinds of responses in Israel. And the difference is that one group, those who go and pray for the safe return of the students and who want to pressure the Israeli government to do whatever it can to bring them back, is actually, within the context of the Israeli political sphere, considered relatively critical, while the other group, such as those–the colonists burning flags or the Facebook group calling to execute Palestinians, these are actually using very cynically this presumed kidnapping in order to fire up the Israeli public and try to convince people that more violence needs to be used. I would venture to say that these are actually in the minority.
TARACHANSKY: I agree with you. And I think what we’ve seen a lot in the Hebrew press here as well is pointing a blaming finger at Netanyahu. There’s been a lot of talk about his manipulation of the situation. But also there’s been criticism of the practice of exchanging abducted soldiers for prisoners. And this is the link between these two events. Many people are saying that if these teenagers are brought forward in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, as we’ve seen with the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who after five years was negotiated for 1,000 Palestinian political prisoners, then after that the Israeli minister of interior and the Israeli prime minister should resign, because they have set the precedent.
HEVER: I think the criticism against Netanyahu comes a lot–it comes from the point that this kidnapping or presumed kidnapping has been so predictable. In fact, about six months ago, the head of the Israeli secret police made an interview in which he expressed a belief that such a kidnapping could indeed happen. Mahmoud Abbas, representing the Palestinian Authority, made it a point to demand the release of prisoners and actually was willing to make this kind of compromise, that instead of demanding a complete freeze of construction in the colonies, he would also accept a release of prisoners instead. Every Palestinian knows that if Israel releases a few Palestinians, it could arrest the same number tomorrow. But nevertheless, this has a very important symbolic value. And it also gives them hope for these people who have been in jail for so long to see some freedom.
TARACHANSKY: And I just want to say that the practice of administrative detention is something that Israel very selectively retained from British Empire law. But by international standards, it’s actually illegal. I also want to say that the kidnapping of civilians is against international law and against the rules of war.
HEVER: Well, that is true, but we shouldn’t fall into false balancing equations, because–and that is exactly what Catherine Ashton from the European Union did. She fell into that trap exactly, by saying, well, we condemn this kidnapping, when in fact she did not condemn the massive arrests and administrative detention of Palestinians by Israel, where we’re talking about hundreds of administrative detainees held currently in the Israeli jails. But she does condemn this action that has not been taken by a sovereign government. So while the European Union does have diplomatic relations with Israel, they have trade with Israel, they have influence over Israel, they don’t have any diplomatic relations with whatever Palestinian group has presumably kidnapped those Israeli students. They don’t have any trade relations with them, and they don’t recognize them. So this condemnation is quite empty, while real condemnation should be addressed to Israel, which is again and again presented as a friend of the European Union.
TARACHANSKY: Thank you for watching The Real News. I’m Lia Tarachansky in Tel Aviv.
HEVER: And I’m Shir Hever in Germany.
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