Mourning, questions follow teens’ murder

Rachel Frenkel cries over the body of her son Naftali Frenkel during the joint funeral for three murdered Jewish teens in the Modi’in cemetery on Tuesday. Photo by Flash 90
Rachel Frenkel cries over the body of her son Naftali Frenkel during the joint funeral for three murdered Jewish teens in the Modi’in cemetery on Tuesday. Photo by Flash 90

The discovery Monday of the bodies of three teenage Israeli boys missing since June 12 has led to calls in Israel for vengeance, and increased skirmishes between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. But amid shock and sorrow in the Jewish world, some observers are looking ahead to what may follow.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a strongly worded reaction Monday to news that Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach were dead as feared. “Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay,” he said after the students’ bodies were discovered in a shallow grave north of the West Bank city of Hebron.

Israel has identified two members of Hamas as the kidnappers. The group, which calls for the destruction of Israel, joined a unity government last month with the Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“This confirms to the Israeli government that the unity agreement is unacceptable and no way are they going to go back to business as usual,” said David Pollock of the Washington Institute, a think tank. “For the U.S., it raises acute questions over whether it should take a strong position and insist Abbas has to do more to keep Hamas in check or dissolve the unity government for continued U.S. support.”

Pollock sees Israel imposing “small-scale penalties” on Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, but not a cutoff of security cooperation, which benefits Israel.

For the P.A., the kidnapping and murder of the three Israelis is “a real dilemma,” Pollock said. “It’s not something Abbas approves of. He had been hoping to maintain the momentum toward Palestinian conciliation as an alternative to peace talks with Israel.”

If calls for Abbas to break up the unity government have grown stronger since Monday, so has criticism of the U.S. decision to work with the Palestinians.

“This incident shows the degree to which the situation between Israelis and Palestinians is unstable and underscores the weakness of the Obama administration policy in continuing to work with a joint Fatah-Hamas government,” said James Phillips, Middle East analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Some members of Congress this week called for the dissolution of the Palestinian unity government.

“If it is determined that Hamas is behind this horrific tragedy, Abu Mazen [Abbas] must immediately break up the unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization,” said a joint statement by U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), ranking member of the same committee.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called on the P.A. to “immediately renounce Hamas and actively work to expel Hamas from civil society.”

President Barack Obama extended his “deepest and heartfelt condolences” to the three families and condemned the kidnapping and murder “in the strongest possible terms.” He urged Israel and the P.A. to “continue working together” to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice. “I also urge all parties to refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation.”

Secretary of State John Kerry echoed those sentiments: “We condemn this despicable terrorist act in the strongest possible terms. The killing of innocent youths is an outrage beyond any understanding or rationale.” He called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice “without destabilizing the situation.”
Despite the heightened rhetoric in Jerusalem, Americans for Peace Now spokesman Ori Nir doesn’t believe Netanyahu will turn public outrage into a major military campaign.

“My sense is that Netanyahu is not going to go berserk,” Nir said. “Sometimes there is a great deal of wisdom in speaking loudly and carrying a small stick. My hope is that he’s just using rhetoric in order to not have to use terribly disproportionate military reaction.”

Pollock of the Washington Institute said the real concern now is Hamas rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza and Israel’s retaliation with airstrikes.

Abbas needs to “push Hamas into enforcing the cease-fire in Gaza,” Pollock stressed. “It’s important to resist the view that Abbas is very weak and Hamas is very strong. It’s just the opposite.”

Nir believes the fighting near Gaza will dissipate, rather than increase. “Hamas is going to realize it has no interest in shooting rockets into Israel. Israel doesn’t want to inflict casualties, and there are not that many targets it can hit from the air.”

Back in the United States, the murders were uniformly condemned by national and local Jewish organizations. “Our hearts are one with the people of Israel,” read a statement from the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington.

Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, in a statement released Tuesday, thanked the Washington-area Jewish community for its support when the fate of the three teens was unknown.

“For 18 days, you stood with the people of Israel united in hope that our boys would come home safe and sound, and now you stand with us united in grief,” said Dermer in the statement. “I have no doubt that the Washington Jewish community will stand with us as we take the actions to bring the perpetrators of this heinous crime to justice, and to defend ourselves.”

Senior Writer Suzanne Pollak contributed to this article.

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