The horrific murder of three children and their parents in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Itamar on 11 March was a shocking and sickening event. Even in a long-running conflict which has seen the bloodiest of murders and the most devastating of military attacks, an incident like this can still shake people to the core. Nothing can justify it, no matter what view you take of settlements, the occupation, the situation of the Palestinians. This was simply a heinous criminal act.
Sadly, however, given the nature of the conflict and the extreme views held by some on all sides, it was inevitable that what happened would be utilised for propaganda purposes. In Rafah in the Gaza Strip there were scenes of rejoicing. In Israel, right-wingers and settlers blamed the murders on ‘left-wing incitement’.
But perhaps the worst exploitation of the incident was the decision by Yuli Edelstein, the Israeli Propaganda Minister, to release to the international media the graphic pictures of the murdered Fogel family as they lay in their own blood. Not only was this beyond the pale by any standards, its purpose – to ‘change the narrative’ of international coverage that is seen as relentlessly blaming Israel for the occupation, building illegal settlements and blocking peace moves – was not achieved. In fact releasing this pornography failed dramatically. As Anshel Pfeffer wrote, ‘no serious news organization even considered publishing the photographs.’
Fortunately, some commentators wrote sensibly and sensitively about the affair. On the admirable bitterlemons.org website, Ghassan Khatib, one of the two editors, rightly emphasised that the murders were ‘condemned in the strongest possible language by many Palestinian officials, opposition and opinion leaders and journalists.’ Responding to Israeli government charges of Palestinian incitement Khatib wrote: ‘The Palestinian Authority has shown a firm and long-standing commitment to non-violence. It has achieved a sustained period of stability, one acknowledged by the international community and, in many cases, by Israeli officials themselves.’
Khatib’s fellow editor Yossi Alpher afirmed this: ‘The local context is one of ongoing settlement expansion and increasingly lawless behavior by extremist settlers, some of them from Itamar and the “illegal” outposts it has spawned, who attack their Palestinian neighbors. This, even as the overall security situation in the West Bank has improved immensely in the last few years thanks to the success of Palestinian security forces and close cooperation between them and Israel and the international community.’
Both agreed that part of the problem was the absence of a credible peace process. Khatib argued that this effectively ‘legitimiz[es] the illegal and violent activities of the settlers, which will definitely contribute to further deepening the hostilities between the two sides and encourage both Israelis and Palestinians to pursue illegal and violent activities, attitudes and expressions.’ Alpher said that a key aspect of the context is the ‘total absence of a peace process: it is almost axiomatic that the status quo of relative peace and quiet in the West Bank cannot long be maintained in the absence of some sort of movement toward peace (although it must be acknowledged that progress toward peace also produces acts of terrorism on both sides).’ He continued:
And all the while, Israel’s right-wing government is rife with its own brand of anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian incitement, disseminated mainly by supposedly respectable and even esteemed religious figures like Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and rabblerousing jingoists like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his associates.
In many ways the Netanyahu government responded to the murders as if the region and the world had nothing else to think about. Protests, demonstrations, brutal suppression of democracy activists, troops and militias firing on their own people – Israel had already shown itself to be incapable of comprehending the wider significance of what was going on in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Libya and Egypt; now it expected to command international attention for its domestic concerns and responded with the usual accusations of prejudice and bad faith when it wasn’t forthcoming.
Anshel Pfeffer so clearly demonstrated the moral bankruptcy of the Israeli government when he juxtaposed the way it sought to gain political and ideological advantage from the murder of the Fogels with the remarks made at the funeral by Motti Fogel, the brother of the dead father Udi:
All the slogans about Torah and settling the land, about Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael, are trying to obscure the simple fact that you are dead and nothing can make that go away. You are dead and no slogan can bring you back. You are not a symbol or a national event, your life had a meaning of its own and your terrible death cannot become a meaning to whatever end.
And for me, if anyone needed any evidence of the utter sham of the settler ideology, which claims that settling ‘Judea and Samaria’ is fulfilling God’s purpose and the moral destiny of the Jewish people, Defence Minister Ehud Barak provided the killer fact 48 hours after the murders when he announced, in response to the crime, that 4-500 new housing units would now be built in the large settlement blocs. This was an undisguised act of punishment, a retaliation that revealed far more about Israel’s disdain for the Palestinians and complete lack of interest in serious peace negotiations than any operation that security or military forces might have carried out. Netanyahu said it all before the grieving family at the house of mourning: the terrorists shoot, we build. In other words, the Palestinians bear collective guilt, so we, the Israelis, will determine the physical and human fate of the West Bank.