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Itamar Murders: How the Israeli Narrative of Victimization Is Fed

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo: Jafi Israel / Flickr)

Itamar Murders: How the Israeli Narrative of Victimization Is Fed

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo: Jafi Israel / Flickr)

How painful it must have been for Motti Fogel to get up and speak at his brother Udi's funeral. Udi, his wife and three of his children were all buried that day. All were killed by intruders while they slept at home in the Jewish settlement of Itamar, near the Palestinian village of Awarta on the West Bank.

However difficult it was, Fogel forced himself to eulogize his brother because he had something so important to say: “This funeral has to be a private affair. A man dies to himself, to his children. Udi, you are not a national event. Your horrible death mustn't make your life into a tool.”

But Fogel must have known that his warning was in vain, that his brother and the whole slain family had already become a tool – a political tool. All he had to do was look across the gravesite and see Moshe Yaalon, Israel's right-wing vice premier and minister of strategic affairs. Such a high-ranking official doesn't show up at some ordinary citizens' funeral unless there is political hay to be made.

In case there was any doubt, Yaalon erased it as soon as it was his turn to speak. “This murder reminds everyone that the struggle and conflict is … a struggle for our existence,” he proclaimed. “We cannot continue speaking about security while the essence is neglected – the essence which is Israel's right to its land” – which includes, he had no need to explain, the entire West Bank. “In this difficult hour, we must rise from the rubble and do the most natural thing – continue building and developing Israel.”

Indeed, on the very same day, other Israeli cabinet ministers were proclaiming that the government's response to the murder – approving several hundred new housing units on the West Bank – was not nearly enough. “We must build in Jerusalem as well as Judea and Samarea,” Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias insisted. “At least a thousand new homes for each person murdered,” Interior Minister Eli Yishai demanded.

To most Israeli Jews, the logic was clear; it was the logic of war: They killed our people. We must strike back.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put a more positive spin on it. “They shoot, and we build,” he said during a photo-op visit to relatives of the victims following the funeral. (Apparently, he couldn't fit the funeral into his schedule). “This criminal act prompted us all to come here and say 'enough.'” The perpetrators “aren't people, they're monsters,” said Netanyahu.

Who did he mean by “they”? Not just the actual murderers. “Netanyahu told his cabinet that Palestinian Authority [PA] incitement against Israel was instrumental in causing the attack,” the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported in its coverage of the funeral. Netanyahu called Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and demanded “that he stop actions which would encourage incitement against Israel.” Fogel's hope that his brother's family would not become a political tool never stood a chance.

As Haaretz's eminent political analyst Akiva Eldar wrote that Netanyahu: “did not miss the opportunity to use the Itamar attack to breathe life into the destructive campaign that says 'there is no Palestinian partner.' … If the murderers wanted to intensify the hatred, violence and death among us, if they sought to etch into our minds that we will always live by the sword and the knife, Netanyahu gave them what they wanted.”

But was that what the murderers really wanted? In the days following the tragedy, no one could say. Absolutely nothing was known about who had done it, much less why. All the political posturing was conjured out of thin air.

Now, we may have some clues, because the Israelis claim to have apprehended the murderers. Amjad Awad, 19, and Hakim Awad, 18, of Awarta have reportedly confessed. Will they become political tools, too? That depends on how their motives are explained. And the fight is on, according to Isabel Kershner of The New York Times:

The Shin Bet [Israel's internal security service] said in a statement that the two suspects … were identified with a Palestinian leftist militant group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, although it was not clear whether the organization had any role in the attack. The Shin Bet emphasized that the attack had been planned and that days before the suspects had tried to obtain a gun through a Popular Front member in Awarta who refused to help.

“But the Israeli Army's regional commander who led the investigation said that the killings did not seem planned and that the suspects were not connected to any organization. He said that he believed they had wanted to enter a settlement as a test of courage and to steal weapons.

Who to believe? A leading Israeli journalist covering security affairs, Amos Harel, says his sources confirm the army commander's view. The two teens were “not acting on behalf of an organized terror cell.” Amjad did say that he intended to kill Israelis and “hoped to die a martyr's death,” Harel reported. But Hakim “regarded the incident as a burglary and the theft of weapons. But when they thought they had been caught, the break-in turned into murder.”

Harel added: “The difference between the two versions may not be that significant…. Many unorganized terror attacks often straddle the fence between being criminal and nationalistic…. A number of terror attacks in East Jerusalem in recent years were also carried out by young people unaffiliated with any organizations.” Did they, too, straddle the fence between criminal and nationalistic? Harel did not say.

Another Haaretz story explained the misleading Shin Bet charge of an organized terror attack. After saying that “the two suspects were identified as members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine” the article explained that the only purported link was the one Kershner noted: a Popular Front member was asked to provide a weapon, but refused.

It turns out that he was related to one of the murderers. They asked lots of relatives for help. There's no evidence that this one's link to the Popular Front had anything to do with the case. Of such flimsy stuff are supposed “acts of organized terror” constructed, when it's politically useful.

Indeed, there's no hard evidence to confirm that these two teens are actually the culprits at all. There are plausible charges of big holes in the Israelis' story.

The pressure on the Israeli army to find someone to blame was immense. A reign of terror was imposed on the village of Awarta from the day the murder occurred, with some 300 people being arrested in the investigation. It's not hard to imagine that the Israelis would trump up false charges. The Jerusalem Post even reported claims that the teens confessed under torture.

But you won't find that in the US media, not even in the nation's most respected newspaper. Kershner did report that “about 35 residents of Awarta remain in Israeli detention” even after the case was supposedly solved, and that the mayor of Awarta has “many doubts about this Israeli story” and demanded an independent investigation. But she did not follow up his claims.

Two weeks earlier, when she reported on the draconian investigation – “The army has repeatedly raided the village, searching homes, forcing doors and breaking furniture, residents said. Hundreds have been arrested” – she depicted the murder as a clearly political act, another battle in an ongoing war. Her lead: “In the rolling hills of the northern West Bank, Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements exist in a geographical intimacy that belies decades of mutual hostility, suspicion and fear. Here neighbors are also enemies, and the brutal killing of five members of the Fogel family in the settlement of Itamar three weeks ago has done nothing but harden that division.”

The same tone marked Kershner's original article on the murder. Although her lead noted that the intruders “appeared to have randomly picked the house,” she immediately added that Itamar is: “on a rocky incline overlooking the nearby Palestinian village of Awarta – the proximity underlining the visceral nature of the contest in this area between Jewish settlers and Palestinians over the land. The Israeli military was combing the Palestinian villages around Itamar.”

Then she sounded like a mouthpiece for Netanyahu, writing that he “pointed a finger at the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, blaming it for what he described as incitement in the schools, the mosques and the news media it controls.” Kershner noted that “Mr. Abbas did not issue any public condemnation on Saturday,” though PA prime minister Salam Fayyad did, and she added that Netanyahu dismissed Abbas' privately phoned expression of sorrow as “weak and mumbled statements…. This is not how one condemns terrorism.”

To complete the political framing of the crime, Kershner added gratuitously: “Palestinians have often justified the killing of Israeli civilians, especially settlers, as a legitimate response to the Israeli occupation of territory conquered in the 1967 war, or in the case of radicals, as part of a broader struggle against Israel's existence” – again, at a time when no one had any idea of the murderers' motives. But the implication of a political motive – Oh, those bloodthirsty Palestinians! – was unmistakable.

There's nothing unusual about Kershner's reporting. The same bias turns up in the other newspaper at the top of the US media influence heap, The Washington Post. And it flows from there down to all mass media reporting on Israel and Palestine.

There are no isolated events, we're told, no criminal attacks, no random kids doing incredibly stupid things, and, certainly, there are no crimes with unknown motives. There are only acts of war – the frame into which every event must fit, a frame with an inevitable pro-Israel bias.

Jewish deaths make the headlines far more often than Palestinian deaths. So, the public naturally thinks that it's the Jews, not the Palestinians, who face daily danger. Maybe that's because Jewish deaths are actually much less common. They are news. There's nothing new about Israelis killing Palestinians. So “Palestinian murderers; Israeli self-defense,” is the plotline that rules.

The results are measured in the public opinion polls, where a large and growing majority of Americans are more sympathetic to Israel than to the Palestinians. No president is going to take a chance on looking like a friend of murderers, especially with an election looming.

The US government will never give up its pro-Israel bias and take an even-handed approach to the conflict until the public understands that the myth of Israel's insecurity has no basis in fact. Despite isolated attacks like the one at Itamar – which may not have been politically motivated at all – it's the Palestinians, enduring the ceaseless cruelties of military occupation, whose lives and livelihoods are constantly most at risk.

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