What is a proportionate response to the killing of three innocent teenagers? There is no easy way to reply to this question, because how can you possibly weigh up one human life against another, or against a set of political goals? Still, it’s a question I can’t help asking.
On 12 June, three Israeli teenagers – Gilad Shaer (16), Naftali Fraenkel (16) and Eyal Yifrah (19) – went missing while hitchhiking south of Jerusalem. After weeks of searching, their bodies were found under a pile of rocks in a field. They had been shot dead, just hours after they went missing. Their story gripped Israel. Their deaths are a tragedy.
But then things get a little bit more complex and political. Israeli intelligence have long maintained the teenagers were kidnapped by Hamas, and they have named two key suspects – Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha – who disappeared from their homes on the night of the kidnapping and have not returned since. Hamas denies responsibility and claims Israel is using the tragedy as an excuse for another offensive in Gaza.
Either way, five Palestinians have been killed in the course of the search operation (according to the Guardian), over 400 Palestinians – mainly Hamas members – have been arrested, 34 locations in Gaza have been hit by airstrikes and Israeli troops have raided over 1,300 sites, sparking riots in some towns. Family members of the dead Palestinians, some of whom were teenagers, have complained that their deaths did not receive the same media coverage, and were not met with the same outrage. That’s an indictment of the political climate in the Middle East: a teenage death is not seen as a tragedy by everyone. Meanwhile, Hamas is fighting back: Israel say at least 26 rockets have hit their territory in the last four days.
The tensions on both sides are only likely to increase, and the violence will escalate. Concerns are mounting of another full-scale invasion by Israel of parts of Gaza and the West Bank. During the 2008-9 Gaza war, 1400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.
Would this be a proportionate response? Israel will argue that its armed retaliation is crucial to maintaining national security and combating terrorism. Palestinians will say the move amounts to collective punishment. Both are to some extent true – yet ultimately, an increase in violence will hurt both sides. Palestine will bear the heaviest losses, and Israeli violence will embitter and radicalise populations in Gaza and the West Bank.
“Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay,” the Israeli prime minister has said. But it will not only be Hamas that pays the price. There is no proportionate response to the killing of children, but a violent retaliation will ultimately be a counter-productive one.