This past month, on the evening of June 12th, three Israeli teenagers, Naftali Frenkel (16), Gilad Shaer (16), and Eyal Yifrah (19), were kidnapped by Palestinians with links to Hamas, while hitchhiking home from the West Bank area near Bethlehem. Over the next three weeks, Israel was gripped with nerve-racking emotion, while authorities began a massive hunt for the boys around the West Bank. It was believed by the public that the three were being held as bargaining chips for a Palestinian prisoner exchange. Two main responses to the kidnappings emerged within the Arab world. The first was happiness, with the proclamation that “three Shalits” were taken this time (an allusion to Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped and held prisoner for more than five years by Hamas in the Gaza Strip). The second was conspiratorial disbelief that the kidnappings actually happened (which, with the finding of the three bodies, morphed into the theory that it was an Israeli plot).
Eighteen days later, after hundreds of Palestinians were arrested and detained, homes and buildings invaded and searched, the boys’ bodies were found partially buried in a field between Halhul and Karmei Tzur, three miles north of Hebron, though the two Palestinian suspects were not. Recently, it has been purported that the kidnappers always intended to kill—not kidnap—their victims, since the murderers used a gun with a silencer, shooting the youth ten times within minutes of luring them into their car.
The day after their bodies were found, a vast funeral was held for the three teenagers in Modi’in, a town half way between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. With tens of thousands in attendance, the three were laid to rest, as all of Israel watched on television. At the same time in Jerusalem, several hundred right-wing Jewish extremists were demonstrating, some even seeking out Arabs to attack, with chants of “Death to Arabs!” With the discovery of the bodies, a Facebook site had also been started, entitled “The people of Israel seek vengeance!” and had 32,000 likes before it was taken down a couple days later.
And vengeance came. Very early the next morning, around 3:45am, while Muslims were preparing for their Ramadan prayers, a 16 year-old, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was kidnapped off the street in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Shu’fat by three males. His body was found burnt in the Jerusalem forest less than a few hours later. A leaked autopsy report revealed that after being beaten in the head, the boy was still alive when he was burnt. In the following days Arab riots broke out in east Jerusalem, and other violence was reported throughout the country. The Jerusalem Light Rail which ran through those Arab neighborhoods was destroyed. Four days later, with the help of a video camera that recorded Mohammed’s kidnappers, Israeli forces arrested six Jewish suspects, some of whom were minors. The next day three of them confessedto the crime.
Israeli officials and citizens responded to the gruesome murder of Mohammed with shock, disbelief, and grief. Many Israelis visited Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s family during their mourning. Much like in the days after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, many calledfor a national soul-searching. Rachelle Fraenkel, mother of murdered Naftali Fraenkel, sent her condolences to Mohammed’s family, “No mother or father should ever have to go through what we are going through, and we share the pain of Mohammed’s parents.” The day after Mohammed’s murder, the Fraenkel family released a statement, “There is no difference between blood and blood. Murder is murder. There is no justification, no pardon and no atonement for murder.”
Since then, violence, protests, attacks, and arson have filled Israeli news reports. Some whisper of a Third Intifada, but most think it unlikely. Since the beginning of July, Hamas has launched an onslaught of hundreds of rockets against Israel. Even in Jerusalem, we have had three air raid warnings during the past week. Around 20,000 Israeli reserve forces are standing at the border with Gaza for a possible invasion to eliminate the rocket threat.
In some ways, all of this is nothing new. The history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is long. Countless attacks, reprisals, threats, and wars fill the annals. All these years of media-saturation can be soul-numbing when complex situations on the ground are compressed into pre-digested “news bites.” The human condition cannot be tamed by our simplistic slogans, whatever they are.
Yet, this latest episode where three Israeli teenagers are killed and then a Jerusalem Arab teenager is killed in retaliation has suddenly made this complicated conflict personal for all of us. It makes us ask the question—what would we want? As Christians, what would we seek? If our son was killed, what would we do? If a terrorist tried hacking us to death, how would we respond? What would we seek? Probably, justice. Hopefully, not vengeance. Perhaps, mercy.