With the Israeli Air Force pounding dozens of targets inside Gaza Tuesday in retaliation for the death of three Israeli teens believed to have been murdered at the hands of Palestinian militants, the stars appear to be aligned for an especially fierce spasm of new violence between the two sides.
“We are in a very combustible situation,” Uzi Rabi, a historian at Tel Aviv University, said Tuesday, adding that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing mounting pressure not only from hawkish government ministers in Jerusalem but an increasingly unified Israeli public to expand the military incursion into Gaza. Factors that kept past clashes in relative check are not in play this time, the analyst said.
In an incident that shook Israeli popular opinion, tens of thousands of Israeli mourners converged in central Israel for a funeral service for the three teenage boys, whose bodies were discovered Monday in the West Bank after a two-week search and crackdown on the Hamas militant group in the Palestinian-controlled territory.
Speculation has swirled through Israeli and American national security circles over the extent to which Hamas leadership sanctioned the killing of the boys, one of whom was a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. But Israeli authorities have broadly pinned the murders on Hamas.
The incident as a whole — coming after the collapse of a yearlong, U.S.-brokered attempt to breath life into Israeli-Palestinian peace talks — has sparked a fresh and unusually deep unity among Israeli citizens divided during recent years on whether their government should be unleashing military force against Hamas. Symbolizing the lack of movement between the two sides, Martin Indyk, Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s special envoy to the region, resigned his post last week after just a year on the job.
“This kind of terror attack, more than other terror attacks, has really struck a chord in the public at large,” Neri Zilber, a scholar with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in a telephone interview from Israel on Tuesday evening.
In addition, Mr. Zilber said, politics inside the Netanyahu government itself are making the situation “more dangerous than it otherwise might be, because Netanyahu cannot afford to look weak to his own right-wing base.”
But Mr. Zilber said it is “extremely unlikely” that Mr. Netanyahu may go so far as to send ground troops into Gaza — despite the growing friction with Hamas.
Tension has risen steadily since April, when Hamas, which Israel and the United States continue to label a terrorist organization, suddenly reached an agreement to form a “unity government” with the more moderate Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank.
While the Palestinian Authority had engaged in the U.S.-brokered peace talks with Israel, the news of the unity government prompted unease in Washington.
However, the Obama administration ultimately turned a blind eye to the development last month, announcing that it would continue disbursing some $440 million in American aid to the West Bank and Gaza through the end of 2014.
The move infuriated Mr. Netanyahu, who has asserted that the Palestinian Authority had essentially rejected the peace process in favor of aligning with a “murderous terror organization that calls for the destruction of Israel.”
Some Israeli Defense Forces officers and moderate members in Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet, such as Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, may still be calling for calm. But Mr. Zilber said Tuesday that the Israeli prime minister is likely to prefer their criticism to the hammering he may receive from Israeli hawks if he fails to violently confront Hamas in the wake of the emotional murders.
“He can’t afford to be outflanked [by] the Israeli right [and] certain ministers in his own government, and even certain ministers in his own party,” Mr. Zilber said, adding that Mr. Netanyahu is being “hammered by right-wing ministers arguing for a really forceful response.”
The Obama administration, meanwhile, has attempted to align with Israeli moderates, calling for restraint during recent days. But the deaths of Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16 and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship, have already prompted heated rhetoric from Mr. Netanyahu, who vowed on Monday night that “Hamas will pay.”
Israeli jets carried out strikes against 34 targets inside the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip — the roughly 25-mile-long and 7-mile-wide territory along the Mediterranean coast and Israel’s border with Egypt — on Tuesday.
The strikes followed days of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel — an apparent response by Hamas to a separate but intense crackdown by Israeli security forces in the West Bank over the past two weeks.
Israeli leaders assert that Hamas operatives carried out the kidnapping and killing of the three boys in the West Bank, which sits along the border with Jordan on the opposite side of Israel from Gaza.
Israeli security services have even identified two alleged Hamas operatives — Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha — as central suspects in the case.
But questions lingered Tuesday over whether Hamas leadership had actually authorized the kidnapping plot or was involved in it in any way. At the State Department, officials suggested the question remains unresolved.
And while the Obama administration’s influence is not great at the moment, the White House joined other countries in urging a measured response from the Netanyahu government.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. government is still seeking details “about who precisely was responsible for this terrible, terroristic act.”
But, he added, “there is also a responsibility that both sides have to exercise restraint to prevent this one terrible act from leading to a much broader, much more destabilizing situation.”
Israeli defense officials said Israel was prepared to do whatever was needed to restore quiet. “We will continue the necessary activity in every area, with all force and scope necessary,” Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, the country’s military chief, said, according to The Associated Press.
Hamas’ alleged involvement may help to explain the relative silence during recent days of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who authorized the unity agreement with the Palestinian militant organization in April.
Several analysts said Tuesday that Mr. Abbas himself is under increasing political pressure — being criticized on one side by Palestinians who see him as cooperating too readily with Israel on the security clampdown in the West Bank, and ridiculed on the other by Israelis already furious over his recent unity agreement with Hamas.
Mr. Abbas made headlines in mid-June when he declared in Arabic, during a meeting of regional foreign ministers in Saudi Arabia, that the kidnapped Israeli teens were “human beings like us, and they should be returned to their parents.”
Mr. Abbas said the kidnappers would be held “accountable,” although he made no mention of Hamas.
Mr. Zilber said Tuesday that Mr. Abbas is “very much walking a political tightrope,” and that his denouncing of the kidnapping “may or may not play well with the [Palestinian] public.”
On the Israeli said, according to Mr. Rabi, there is “growing resentment, because this whole story is so sad, and they would like the government to act in retaliation.”
“This could easily turn into more violence,” said Mr. Rabi, who added that while there may be a “need to punish Hamas,” Israel would be wise to “use the scalpel, not the hammer.”
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