As Israeli Voices Call for Reflection, Troops Amass on Gaza Border

As the murder of a Palestinian teen prompts Israeli politicians and journalists to reexamine parts of Israeli culture, Israeli troops prepare for an escalation of hostilities in the south.

A ball of fire is seen following an Israeli air strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on July 8, 2014. (National Journal)

As some politicians and journalists made contrite, conciliatory statements in response to the killing of a 16-year-old Palestinian, Israeli troops amassed at the Gaza border and militants in Gaza lobbed rockets at each other on Tuesday, in a show of mixed messaging from both sides.

Israeli reactions were initially hostile following the discovery of the bodies of three Israeli teenagers last week: Economy Minister Naftali Bennet called for "actions, not words," and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised that God will "avenge their blood." But after three Israelis were arrested and confessed to their involvement in the subsequent revenge-fueled killing of a 16-year-old Palestinian in Jerusalem, Israeli politicians and journalists from all sides tempered their messages and condemned the murder.

"I pledge that the perpetrators of this horrific crime will face the full weight of the law," said Netanyahu on Sunday. "I know that in our society, the society of Israel, there is no place for such murderers." But the prime minister could not resist including a dig aimed at Palestinians: "This is a difference between us and our neighbors. There, murderers are received as heroes, and city squares are named in their honor."

Voices elsewhere in the Israeli government came out to denounce the murder of 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir. Ofer Shelah, a member of parliament in the centrist Yesh Atid Party, reacted to the news with a comment broadcast on Israeli radio: "If it's true, this is an act of terrorism in every sense." And in an op-ed coauthored by the current president of Israel, Shimon Peres, and the president-elect, Reuven Rivlin, the two spoke out against incitement and collective accusation. "In the State of Israel there is no difference between blood and blood," Peres and Rivlin wrote. "The murder of a boy or a girl, Jewish or Arab, is an unacceptable act."

The editorial staffs of two of Israel's most prominent newspapers came out with harsh indictments of the Israeli cultural norms that fueled the revenge killing. Ha'aretz, Israel's oldest daily newspaper, called for a "cultural revolution" in Israel. "Abu Khdeir's murderers are not 'Jewish extremists,' " the op-ed read. "They are the descendants and builders of a culture of hate and vengeance that is nurtured and fertilized by the guides of 'the Jewish state': Those for whom every Arab is a bitter enemy, simply because they are Arab."

And David Horovitz, the founding editor of the Times of Israel and the former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post, wrote of the need for Israelis to shed their "moral superiority" over their Palestinian neighbors. "We need to face up to the fact that our ongoing rule over the Palestinians, apart from endangering Israel as a Jewish democracy, is corroding us, blackening our hearts," Horovitz wrote. "If the Jewish state, the homeland of the Jewish nation, does not thoroughly emblemize a reverence for life, we have no particular right to be here at all."

But as thinkers called for reflection in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the Israel Defense Forces continued to bombard the Gaza Strip, reportedly killing 11 Tuesday morning. The possibility of a ground assault remains on the table, a source in Netanyahu's office told Reuters. The Israeli attacks are in response to more than 200 rockets that were launched from the Gaza Strip since the Israeli military began searching for the three Israeli teens that disappeared June 12. No casualties were reported from these rockets. A Hamas operative declared Tuesday that the Israeli escalation means that "all Israelis have become legitimate targets."

The back-to-back tragedies that resulted in the deaths of four teens, Israeli and Palestinian, offered people on both sides of the conflict a chance to consider the effects of persistent hatred and mistrust — qualities that have, over the long term, become embedded in elements of both cultures. But the distraction of aggression and hostility on both sides may rob Israelis and Palestinians of this opportunity for reflection, instead entrenching each even deeper as rockets fly overhead.