How Israel turned tragedy into opportunity

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 Justin Schwegel

On June 12, three Israelis settlers  and possible murder, rumors swirled in the West Bank of an Israeli false operation. After all, the reasoning went, no Palestinian political player stood to gain from a kidnapping. It is now widely accepted that there was never a kidnapping and no one investigating the incident ever suspected one. To be sure, three Israeli settlers were killed, but it was done immediately without the intent to ever hold them.

Throughout Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s two-and-a-half week grandstanding, he knew the settlers were dead. There were gunshots on the emergency call, and an Arab voice saying they had killed three. Their blood was found in a vehicle riddled with bullet holes. Israel had already arrested those who had done it in Hebron just days after it happened and quite possibly knew where the bodies were buried.

If it were important enough for the Israeli government to lie about the events surrounding the tragedy, it is certainly important enough to ask why. There are three key reasons why the Israeli government played politics by lying about the nature of this incident. First, international public opinion of Israel is at a record low. Second, continued reporting on a kidnapping and search and rescue mission created political cover for the Israeli Military to move against Hamas members and other political dissidents in the West Bank. Finally, the systematic oppression of Palestinians and the confiscation of their land and resources is only possible where Israeli suffering is highlighted and Palestinian suffering is downplayed to create the illusion of parity.

It was impossible to achieve these goals with the truth, that three Israeli settlers were murdered. This would have been a short-lived story that would perhaps dominate one 24-hour news cycle. The tragedy had to be milked for weeks to buy time for the Israeli operation in the West Bank and to maximize the public opinion impact of the story.

First, Israel’s public image has been suffering incredibly in the past several months. Palestine has been beating Israel savagely in both public opinion and political maneuvering. The push from universities, religious groups and NGOs across the globe to divest from companies that profit from the continued illegal occupation of Palestine has reached unprecedented levels.

The Gates foundation and the Methodist Church recently divested from G4S, a British corporation which in the face of mounting pressure, has vowed to end its security operations in Israeli prisons. The Presbyterian Church also divested from its corporations that profit from occupation, namely Hewlett-Packard, Motorola and Caterpillar, which is infamous for making the weaponized bulldozers that the Israeli Military uses to bulldoze Palestinian homes and olive groves, and which killed American peace activist Rachel Corrie.

However, there is a far greater threat facing the Israeli settlement enterprise. Because fundamental norms of international law have been internalized in the domestic legislation of many countries, the proper implementation of domestic legal regimes requires the differentiation between Israel proper and its illegally occupied settlements. The illegal Israeli settlements are not recognized as part of Israel under international law and a differential legal treatment ineluctably flows from this different status.

One example is the EU’s inability to make scientific funding available to universities operating in the West Bank, or to allow settlement-produced goods to receive preferential treatment under the EU-Israel Association Agreement. The EU also cannot recognize Israeli certification procedures for settlement produce (e.g. poultry veterinary certification and organic food certification) because the Israeli government simply does not have the authority to grant such certification to settlement produce. This dispassionate legal evolution is motivated by the necessity for consistency within an EU legal regime that has internalized the fundamental norms of an international legal system.

When the peace talks between Palestine and the Israelis collapsed, international observers, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, unanimously placed the blame squarely on Israel for missing prisoner release deadlines and announcing the construction of new settlements in Palestine. Weeks later, when Abu Mazen announced a Fatah-Hamas Unity Government, Netanyahu claimed that was the reason for the collapse of the peace talks. Netanyahu saw the murder as an opportunity to vilify Hamas (which has denied any involvement) and consequently, the new Unity Government as well as a chance to recover some of the international good will it has lost.

Second, the timeline for which the farcical kidnapping storyline was allowed to continue was just sufficient to give the Israeli Occupation Forces a pretext for conducting the mass arrest of hundreds of political dissidents and the collective punishment of an entire race. While ostensibly the West Bank operation was to recover kidnapped Israelis, given the evidence available to policymakers at the time of its execution and the breadth of the arrests, this is simply not believable. At its root, the massive West Bank operation (Operation Brother’s Keeper) had the goal of breaking the Palestinian Unity Government.

Only a handful of the 650 arrested were even questioned about the murder. For the past several years, the Likud government has bemoaned the fact that the PLO was not a true partner for peace because they could not speak with a unified voice for Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. During the past few weeks, Netanyahu had repeatedly expressed his opposition to the Fatah-Hamas unity government and had been searching diligently for a way to undermine it. This was the opportunity he was waiting for.

Finally it would be impossible for Israel, in the face of overwhelming international condemnation, to continue its systematic oppression of Palestinians and the confiscation of Palestinian land and resources. The common media rendering of the Israeli occupation is the story of a complicated bilateral conflict that fails to capture the reality of the unilateral domination of one people by another. According to the Ramallah Bureau of Statistics, since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 to April 2013, Israel has killed 1,518 children, the equivalent of one Palestinian child every three days for 13 years.