Israel's Latest Threat: Far-Right Jewish Terrorists

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) stands next to Avi Fraenkel (left) and Ofir Shaer, fathers of two of the three Israeli teens who were abducted and killed in the occupied West Bank, as they hug during their sons’ joint funeral. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

As if the Israeli authorities did not have enough on their plate. Long experienced in fighting its numerous enemies, and still reeling from the traumatic killing by terrorists of three of its teenagers, Israel is facing one more, increasingly menacing challenge: far-right Jewish terrorism.

The Israeli security forces are already struggling to locate the Palestinian perpetrators of the murder of the three Jewish teens, whose bodies were found near Hebron Monday. And they are also countering a barrage of rockets launched from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip that are daily hitting southern Israel.

Then, on Wednesday, the Israeli police found a body in the woods near Jerusalem. The victim was soon identified as 17-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Family members, living in the mostly Arab Shuafat neighborhood in northern Jerusalem, said the dead boy was the victim of a revenge kidnapping in response to the murder of the three Israeli boys.

Israel is caught up in a wave of violence sparked by the fatal kidnapping of the three teens. Jewish rioters in Jerusalem tried to attack Arabs in several parts of the city. The following evening, in northern Jerusalem, incensed Arabs rioted, hurling rocks and setting off makeshift explosive devices that broke glass in the Shuafat light-rail station. Several people were injured, including at least two press photographers.

In Ramallah, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas blamed the Israeli authorities, and their recent punitive operation against Hamas in the West Bank in response to the deaths of the three teens, for the apparent revenge killing of Abu Khdeir. He called on the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to "condemn the kidnapping and murder of the teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir, as we condemned the kidnapping and murder of the three settlers."

Netanyahu moved quickly, ordering the Israeli police commissioner, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, to "work as quickly as possible in order to investigate who is behind the reprehensible murder and what the motive was." He called on "all sides" not to take the law into their hands. Israel, he said in a statement, "is a nation of laws, and everyone must act according to the law."

A day after they condemned the killing of the three Israeli boys, European leaders and the U.N. also condemned the Abu Khdeir murder. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called it a "despicable and senseless abduction and murder," and National Security Adviser Susan Rice tweeted, "US paying close attention to investigation."

The suspected murder of Abu Khdeir came on top of a number of other attacks against Palestinians in what far-right settler groups call "price tag," revenge attacks against Arabs in direct response to acts of anti-Jewish terrorism. Such revenge killings severely complicated the calculations of the Netanyahu government as it considered a suitable response after the discovery Monday of the bodies of Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Fraenkel, who were murdered soon after they were kidnapped when hitchhiking home on the night of June 12.

Israel has published the names of two suspects in that killing, Marwan Kawasama and Amar Abu Issa, both members of the Kassam Brigades, the Hamas military wing. Israeli intelligence sources say the killing was planned by Hamas leaders, including, perhaps, Saleh al-Aruri, a member of the organization's political bureau, who lives in Turkey.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu's security cabinet convened for the third time in as many days after its members were reportedly divided over what the next steps should be. The emerging consensus, according to several sources, was to continue searching for and punishing the two Hamas operatives and anyone else who was connected to the killing. Also widely agreed on was continuing operations against the political, charitable and military infrastructure of Hamas in the West Bank.

"There are still things we can do," Ophir Akunis, a deputy minister in the prime minister's office, told me. "We must act much more forcefully to dismantle the Hamas capabilities in the West Bank."

But three top cabinet members—Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni—are opposed to widening the air attacks currently being waged on Gaza, where Hamas has its main power base, to include an invasion by ground forces.

Such an all-out war on Hamas, they reasoned, was likely to intensify the rocket barrage, bringing into use missiles that could hit Israel's main population centers in the areas around Tel Aviv. Such an escalation of an already tense situation could also risk enflaming the already highly tense emotions on display in the Arab territories, spreading them to the rest of the region, just as Muslims start to mark the monthlong ceremonies of one of their most important religious festivals, Ramadan.

But Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman took a different line, calling for the launch of what he called "Operation Defensive Shield 2, this time in Gaza." He was referring to the large-scale West Bank operation launched in 2002 in response to the suicide bombers from there who hit Israel's main population centers, killing dozens of citizens. Defensive Shield was considered more successful in ending the suicide bombing campaign than the more recent operations that have failed to stop the missile attacks from Gaza.

"There is a direct link between the killing of the [Israeli] boys and the escalating missiles attacks in the south," Lieberman said in a statement. "It is a direct result of the Hamas attempt to take over Judea and Samaria in the aftermath of the establishment of the unity government."

Although the cabinet was hesitating about whether to order a major operation in Gaza, it was unified behind the latter part of Lieberman's statement. Jerusalem has opposed the establishment of a Palestinian unity government ever since Abbas signed an agreement with Hamas leader Khaled Massahl in May, while vowing to avoid negotiating with Hamas.

The Palestinian unity move has upset the unanimity of the Western response to Hamas, which is defined as a terror organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union. Yet as soon as the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas announced their accord, Washington announced it would "work" with the new joint government, while keeping an eye on its actions.

Israeli officials were livid. Far from causing Hamas to be more moderate, "the international community's support of this so-called unity government gave much tailwind to terrorism," said Akunis, a close Netanyahu confidante.

The Israeli government's attempt to isolate Hamas intensified as the 18-day search for the missing teens continued. Inside the country, Israelis learned to appreciate the quiet dignity with which the boys' families bore their grief. The discovery of the bodies reminded the country of the centuries of pain it has endured as a result of anti-Jewish actions.

"Vengeance for the blood of a small child, Satan has not yet created," Netanyahu said in a statement, quoting a well-known line from Haim Nachman Bialik, Israel's first poet laureate, written in the aftermath of one of the most shocking pogroms in tsarist Russia, the 1903 killing of nearly 100 Jews in Kishinev, Moldova.

The killing of Abu Khdeir is clearly not on the same scale. Unlike the tsarists, who encouraged pogroms in Russia, the Israeli authorities have dedicated considerable resources to finding the perpetrators of the crime. But the reprisal murder has caused the country to lose a fleeting moment of world sympathy for its pain over the deaths of the three teens.

While Netanyahu was quick to denounce the unlawful killing of the Arab boy, Hamas condoned the kidnapping and killing of the Israeli teens even as it declined to claim responsibility for the crime. Yet Hamas appears to be enjoying a feeling around the world that there is symmetry between the two sides.

In addition to the obligations it has to the grieving Abu Khdeir family, the Israeli government has one eye on world opinion as it moves to quickly catch and severely punish those who are implicated in this savage act of Jewish terrorism.