As a grief-stricken Israel mourns the killing of three teenagers, abducted and killed presumably by members of the militant Hamas movement, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu faces a nearly impossible task. It must steer a course driven by the country’s rage, between pressure from the political right to take revenge and concern that some responses could trigger a shooting war.
Following a gut-wrenching funeral in which the three young Israelis were laid to rest side by side in a central Israeli cemetery that overlooks the Green Line between Israel and the West Bank, Mr. Netanyahu told his countrymen his target in the days ahead is Hamas, Hamas, Hamas.
The government may want its actions to deter future acts of terror, noted Haaretz defence analyst Amos Harel. But “its practical goal is more to pacify Israelis.”
“Hamas is responsible. Hamas will pay and Hamas will continue to pay,” he told reporters ahead of a security cabinet meeting Tuesday night, the second such meeting in as many days. But, as Israel’s own experience with revenge shows, that way lies danger.
The last time a small group of Israelis was abducted and killed – by Hezbollah in 2006 – Israel’s reaction was to launch a month-long war that ended with some 1,200 Lebanese and 165 Israelis dead, and no clear winner.
Earlier that same year Israel reacted to the abduction of a young soldier, Gilad Shalit, and the killing of two of his comrades with an assault on Hamas in Gaza called Operation Summer Rains. More than 400 Gazans were killed (half of whom were militants) along with seven Israelis, but the operation failed to win Cpl. Shalit’s release. Nor did it prevent Hamas from taking control of the Gaza Strip the following year.
Employing a big retaliatory stick this time, especially if directed at Gaza, could trigger a war with Hamas in which the Palestinians might use powerful long-range missiles they reportedly have acquired. Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader, warned Israel last week that Hamas’s rockets “are now able to target any Israeli city in any upcoming battle.” And they are believed to be numerous enough to penetrate Israel’s Iron Dome defences.
Previous Israeli prime ministers faced similar challenges, pressures and impulses for revenge.
In his time, the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was both a fierce warrior, leading Israeli forces in battle between 1948 and 1967, and an apostle of peace, signing the Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993.
What Mr. Rabin did – and didn’t do – could serve as a model as Israel’s government contemplates how to proceed.
Before Oslo, Mr. Rabin was given to fury, former Rabin spokesman Uri Dromi said Tuesday in an interview.
The most vivid example was in December, 1992, when Nissim Toledano, a master sergeant in Israel’s Border Police was kidnapped by Hamas. The organization said it would release Sgt. Toledano only if Israel released Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin. Israel refused and, three days later, Sgt. Toledano’s body was found. He had been strangled and stabbed and his body mutilated.
“I was there when they brought the photos into the prime minister’s office,” Mr. Dromi said. “Rabin was livid. Without another thought he decided to deport all of Hamas’s leading activists,” he said. More than 400 were put on buses and driven to the border with Lebanon.
“He was acting out of rage,” said Mr. Dromi. “When he saw those photos, emotion overcame him.”
The result was a year of celebrity-status for Hamas as its activists remained in a no-man’s land between the two borders. Hamas members from Gaza and the West Bank had a chance to bond and plan, and Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shia organization, and its Iranian benefactors even became friendly with the Sunni Hamas movement. In the end, international public pressure caused Mr. Rabin to have the Hamas members returned home.
Post-Oslo, it was a different approach, said Mr. Dromi. In the face of terror attacks in 1994 and 1995 – including the first Hamas suicide bombings in Israel – Mr. Rabin’s approach was to carry on.
“He said we must pursue peace as if there is no terror,” said Mr. Dromi, “and fight terror as if there was no peace process. ... In this way he developed a sense of proportionality, one that kept Israel from breaking international norms.”
Terror came also from the Israeli side during Mr. Rabin’s watch. When Baruch Goldstein, a resident of the Kiryat Arba settlement outside Hebron, killed 29 Muslims at prayer at Abraham’s tomb, Mr. Rabin denounced the act in no uncertain terms and banned the Kach Party to which Dr. Goldstein belonged.
It remains to be seen if Hamas will do something similar in today’s circumstances and denounce the perpetrators of the teens’ murder.
However, in the Goldstein case, Mr. Rabin’s action didn’t prevent Hamas’s suicide spree, nor did it pacify Israelis, whose right wing opposed Mr. Rabin to such a degree that one of its members assassinated him the following year.
If Mr. Rabin were prime minister today, said Mr. Dromi, “I believe he would curb his rage and carry out a proportional response to the murders.”
“I’m sure he would never relent in bringing the killers to justice,” he added. “And I think he probably would assassinate or eliminate some Hamas extremists,” he added. “But he would not do so much as to put [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas in an impossible position.”
Mr. Abbas last week condemned Hamas in strong language – in both English and Arabic – and he provided Israel with considerable help in the search, according to Mr. Dromi. “But to demand too much of him would put him at risk from the extremists.”
For example, Israel “should not insist that Abbas break up the unity government,” Mr. Dromi said, referring to the recently established non-partisan government agreed to by both Mr. Abbas’s PLO and Hamas. Not only would that harm Mr. Abbas’s standing in his community, but it would unnecessarily cut off a possible lifeline to Hamas.
The unity government involves a certain risk for Israel, said Mr. Dromi, but it also represents an opportunity. “Perhaps the PLO can drag Hamas closer to its position of accepting Israel as an accomplished fact.” Such possibilities should not be curtailed, he said.