World

How Israel Brutally Punished Palestinian Society For the Crimes of a Few

The disappearance of three Israeli youths lead to the largest Israeli army operation in the occupied West Bank in years.

Israeli soldiers in the West Bank looking for three Israeli youth who were abducted and killed.
Photo Credit: Israel Defense Forces/Flickr

The dead bodies of three Israeli youths were found yesterday in the occupied West Bank after over two weeks of uncertainty.  The three Israelis--19-year-old Eyal Yifrach and 16-year-olds Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar--had gone missing June 12th after attending a yeshiva in a West Bank settlement.  They were most likely killed by two Palestinian militants.

Israel’s response to the abductions has been to essentially hold every Palestinian responsible for the crimes of a few. In response to the discovery of the bodies, Israel’s policy of collective punishment—a war crime under international law— has continued, with vengeful targeting of the families of the alleged suspects.  

Days into the Israeli army operation, a coalition of Palestinian human rights groups issued a statement slamming collective punishment.  

“The recent wave of arrests, attacks, killings and total closure of large parts of the West Bank following the disappearance of three Israeli settlers is a clear form of collective punishment against the Palestinian people,” the statement read.  “Although some of the measures carried out by the Israeli forces in large parts of the West Bank may have a link to the investigation into the disappearances, the methods employed are indiscriminate in their nature and are undermining the fundamental rights of the persons concerned.”

The three Israelis who went missing captured the attention of Israeli society, who prayed and rallied for their safe return. Israeli authorities exploited the opportunity to carry out large-scale arrest operations and raids and damage the Palestinian economy. That Israel exploited the chance to target Hamas, the Islamist militant group Israel has accused of being behind the abductions, was made all the more clear by revelations that Israel knew the teens had been harmed long before that information was released to the public. But much of the information about the teens’ fate was put under a gag order by Israel’s military censor, giving Israel time to fulfill a political goal of weakening Hamas. Hamas has denied Israel's claims. News reports indicate that a rogue unit affiliated with the movement carried out the attack--and that it wasn’t directed by Hamas’ leadership.

In mid-June, the Israeli military launched Operation Brother’s Keeper, the largest army operation in the area since the Second Intifada, when it was common to have soldiers battle Palestinians in the streets of West Bank cities. Thousands of Israeli troops invaded West Bank cities and went door to door, rounding up many Palestinians. The pretext was to look for intelligence on the missing Israelis, but the breadth of the operation, which took soldiers far from Hebron in the south, showed that the operation was about far more than just looking for the missing youths.

The collective punishment of Palestinian society over the past two weeks can be measured in many ways. First, there are the arrests. Throughout the operation, which is ongoing and could escalate, at least 500 Palestinians have been arrested by Israeli troops. While the majority are affiliated with Hamas, a movement with deep roots in Palestinian society, some are not part of the group. The arrests of Hamas leaders, and others who were released in 2011 due to a prisoner exchange, was all about limiting the ability of the political movement to operate in the West Bank--especially after Hamas signed a reconciliation agreement with Fatah, ending a bitter split sparked by a U.S.-backed attempt by Fatah to wrest power from Hamas after it won democratic elections in 2006.

The arrests are accompanied by groups of Israeli soldiers raiding the homes of the people they haul in to jail.  But the raid doesn’t just stop at arrests.  Pictures and accounts reported over the past two weeks have shown that Israeli soldiers have rampaged through and ransacked the homes of the families of the arrestees. Furniture is torn apart, the kitchen overturned and whole families sequestered away while the raid goes on.

The city of Hebron has borne the brunt of the collective punishment. In addition to arrests and raids, checkpoints were set up throughout the city and Palestinians faced severe restrictions on their movement. Hebron’s economic losses have been estimated at $12 million, though it could be even more by now.

The large-scale army incursions into West Bank cities also sparked resistance from Palestinian residents, some of whom threw stones at the invading forces.  Israeli troops, using live fire, killed six Palestinians in the course of their raids.

Most of the killings, arrests and raids took place before the bodies of three Israeli youths were found after being shot. But the collective punishment hasn’t let up. On the night when the bodies were found, Israeli soldiers raided Hebron and ransacked and blew up the homes of the alleged suspects behind the attack. The attack on the homes of Amar Abu Aisha and Marwan Qawasmeh is a return to a Second-Intifada-era policy of destroying the homes of militants, which harms their families who have not been accused of any crime, another violation of international law. In addition, Israel destroyed the Aisha and Qawasmeh homes before the two have been held, questioned and convicted.

Israeli authorities may still escalate further. The Israeli public is outraged at the deaths of the youths.  The Israeli Air Force hit the Gaza Strip over 30 times the night the bodies were found.  More raids, arrests, killings and bombings in Gaza likely await Palestinian society.

Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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