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How the missing Israeli teenagers stoke feelings of tribal vengeance

An intrepid journalist friend based in Israel said this week she was keen to get to Iraq to cover the current conflict there, but hated to leave Israel "at a time like this."

She was referring to the ongoing search for three missing Israeli teenagers believed to have been abducted when they tried to hitch a ride home from their Jewish yeshivas located near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.

This Western journalist is not Israeli; she's not even Jewish. But she has three children by an Israeli father and her kids have grown up Israeli. Now in their 20s, they all served in the army, starting when they were about 18. Their mother says she "can't explain it" but she feels this inexorable tug that has her worried for the well-being of these missing teens.

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Israel thrives on this spirit of pulling together; it builds strength. Whether reeling from the Holocaust and ongoing anti-Semitism, or in the face of tremendous adversity in creating and sustaining a permanent homeland, this tribal instinct to look out for each other is succour to their cause.

But this communal spirit also breeds xenophobia and, at a time such as this, can lead to a kind of mob mentality – one that blurs the distinction between legitimate searches and revenge; one that rationalizes the massive military operation under way in the Palestinian West Bank, and that accepts without question that the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, was responsible for the abduction.

Operation Brother's Keeper, as it is known, has now run for more than a week. Hundreds of doors have been kicked down, more than 300 people arrested – three quarters of them having some affiliation with Hamas – and countless computer hard drives have been confiscated. But the young Israelis have not been found, nor has any evidence been produced that Hamas carried out the abduction.

However, one 14-year-old boy, a Palestinian, was killed Friday near Hebron when Israeli forces came under a hail of rocks and Molotov cocktails and fired live ammunition in return.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched this operation last weekend with two goals in mind: to find the three boys and to "hurt Hamas as much as possible."

Brother's Keeper has failed so far to produce the young Israelis.

As Amos Harel points out Friday in Haaretz newspaper, "The longer that goal remains unmet, the greater the need to provide an alternative achievement – mostly for the politicians, but also for the army." Thus the campaign against Hamas is sold as a battle against terrorism, and who can fault that?

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It must be said that Hamas, which began as a resistance movement directing its operations against Israeli forces and settlers in the West Bank, graduated in the 1990s and 2000s to the use of suicide bombings against civilians inside Israel, for which it will forever be remembered. Following its takeover of Gaza in 2007, it also fired thousands of rockets against populated areas in southern Israel, terrifying thousands of Israelis, albeit with relatively few casualties.

But the group recently joined with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to form a unity government in the West Bank and Gaza, and that government declared its recognition of Israel, foreswore violence and accepted all previous agreements entered into between the Palestinians and the Jewish state.

Many Western countries, including the United States, applauded this initiative and are prepared to deal with the Palestinian unity government as long as it abides by these pledges.

Mr. Abbas, this week denounced the abductions, saying that "whoever committed this act wants to destroy us [Palestinians]."

Almost certainly, only a small minority of those Palestinians arrested this week will have had any connection to terrorism, let alone to the abduction.

And those detained include moderate voices such as Aziz Dweik, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, who have offered to settle with Israel, not destroy it, and has the popular following to deliver on it.

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The large scale military operation has become an act of collective punishment and has triggered a response from Palestinians such as the clash in which the Palestinian youth was killed.

Palestinians, including those who have long opposed Hamas and favoured peace with Israel, have turned to their own form of tribal behaviour to keep up their communal spirit: They greet each other with a three-finger salute, signifying support for the abduction, whoever carried it out.

On Saturday, concerned Israelis plan a demonstration in Tel Aviv, to protest the collective punishment being meted out by their defence forces. They say its tactics have gone too far and worry that all this may trigger a third intifada.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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