United in hope and grief…writes Emily Gian

July 3, 2014 by Emily Gian
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I have been running my fingertips over my keyboard for hours upon hours desperately trying to find the adequate words to describe the events in Israel in a way that would do justice to what has been taking place.

Emily Gian

Emily Gian

I woke in the middle of the night on Monday and was struggling to fall back asleep when I pulled out my iPhone to check social media. There were rumours that the IDF was surrounding a house or an area in Hebron and people were speculating what it might mean in terms of the search for kidnapped teens Eyal Yifrach, Gil-Ad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel. Some said that the bodies of the three had been found, while others suggested that perhaps a rescue operation was underway. The media was under another embargo, so all there really was at that time was speculation.

One emotion that has really highlighted the past 2½ weeks is that of hope. I think it can be attributed to the families of the three boys, in particular their mothers, who displayed that feeling wherever they appeared; be it outside their homes, on the stage at the rally on Sunday night, and even all the way in Geneva, when they took their story to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

The feeling of hope they exuded was contagious. This went beyond the secular or religious, the believers and the cynics. A whole people including many in the Jewish diaspora carried hope that these young boys would be returned unharmed to their families.

But it was not to be the case. The first tweet to pop up in my news feed came from the IDF. During the search for Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel, the IDF had discovered three bodies near Hebron – a sentence we had all hoped we would never read. I shuddered in the dark and, as I tried to return to sleep, the smiling faces of these three boys remained in my head. How could anyone want to harm them?

Sometimes, in our quest to find answers, we realise we simply cannot get into the minds of killers, of murders and of terrorists and to understand why they behave in this way; or why others like the mother of one of the suspected murderers could speak in glowing terms of her son’s depravity.

“I’ll be proud of him till my final day”.

Proud that her son murdered three Jewish boys?

I am sitting here now and reading of a young Israeli Arab whose body was found near Jerusalem. Although it’s too early to reach conclusions I despair at the possibility that this might have been a revenge killing. The very thought is abhorrent.

Today’s Haaretz reports that Yishai Fraenkel, uncle of Naftali Fraenkel, unequivocally condemns the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Speaking on behalf of the Fraenkel family, he said, “There is no difference between blood and blood. Murder is murder, whatever the nationality and age are. There is no justification, no forgiving and no atoning for any murder.”

Last month at Limmud Oz, Peter Beinart who has been a strong critic of Israeli policy spoke of the need for Palestinians in the West to speak out against Hamas’ human rights abuses, “I don’t know if Hamas bears responsibility for the physical abduction of Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Shaar.  But I know this: Morally, Hamas has been trying to abduct the Palestinian national movement for many years now”.

To my dismay, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper gave Maher Mughrabi, Foreign News Editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, the opportunity to respond and he did so in a way that shocked me.

End the occupation then we’ll speak out against Hamas”.

To be sure, Mughrabi and his friend  Samah Sabawi who seems to spend every waking hour trying to demonise Israel, claim to “never shy away from scrutiny of Hamas” but why should they do so in anything more than muted tones?

Because these people are only terrorists and war criminals who fire missiles at kindergartens and whose aim is to kill all Jews, stupid!

Mughrabi’s mealy mouthed excuse making speaks much about the frustrations of searching for peace in this region. He is telling us that his people have no responsibility to conduct themselves in a civilised manner because of an “occupation” that can only be ended by co-operation from all sides.

I have written many times here of the lack of will and effort of Mahmoud Abbas, now in a form of unity government with Hamas, in furthering the peace process but Mughrabi says he and his friends in the West are entitled to keep quiet about war criminals and human rights abusers among their fellow Palestinians and ignore the necessity of speaking out strongly and loudly against their terrorist activities.

Little wonder that yesterday’s Age consigned the story of the three murdered teenagers to page 14 (compared with the Mavi Marmara story which was front page news at the time) with a headline that declared that Hamas was threatening to open the “gates of hell”, a regular claim from this crowd and a rather poor way to headline a report on the murder of three teenage boys.

Perhaps the Age would have served its dwindling readership better had it reported on the facts.

The bodies were found buried in a shallow grave outside of Hebron. They were apparently identified by their clothes and shoes. From what experts have pieced together from the evening they were kidnapped, perhaps only one of them was originally approached by the kidnappers, who were driving a car with Israeli number plates to disguise themselves. It was suggested that it may have been Eyal Yifrach, who did not know the other boys. When they realised the other two were there, they may have had to change their plans, realising they would actually be outnumbered.

Approximately ten minutes later, Gil-Ad Shaar managed to make a phone call to the police, which has now been released, where he whispered “they kidnapped me”, followed by another voice saying “head’s down”. It is believed that the boys were shot shortly after the phone call was made.

While we know that the distress phone call was initially dismissed as a prank, the kidnappers did not, and they thought at this stage, that police were already on their tails. In reality, the search did not begin until the early hours of the next morning. It continued for another 17 days.

As soon as the bodies were found, the Security Cabinet convened in an Emergency meeting where Prime Minister Netanyahu declared,“With heavy grief this evening we found three bodies. All signs indicate that they are the bodies of our three abducted youths – Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frankel. They were abducted and murdered in cold blood by human animals.” He extended his condolences to the families before concluding, “Hamas is responsible – and Hamas will pay”.

The following day in another Security Cabinet meeting he said, “We have three tasks. First to reach the murderers and all those who participated in the kidnappings. Whoever was involved in the kidnapping and the murder will bear the consequences… We will reach them all even if it takes time…

Second we must vigorously strike at Hamas members and infrastructures in Judea and Samaria…

Third, is that we must act against Hamas in the Gaza Strip…

Anyone who thinks that they can achieve anything by using terrorism against us will continue to be mistaken and will achieve the opposite results.”

Condemnation for the murders has come from voices from all over the world, too many to put all in the one place.

From an Australian perspective, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop released a statement with the ambiguous title “Australian condemns violence in Middle East”, where she began by sending her condolences to the families of the three teenagers and then condemned violence, especially against innocent civilians.

She then stated, “I call on both sides to refrain from any escalation of violence that would only serve to make resolution of differences between Israel and Palestinians more difficult”.

U.S President Obama also released a statement condemning this “senseless act of terror against innocent youth”, reinforcing support in finding the perpetrators and reminding the Israeli people that they have the full support and friendship of the United States. But he also urged “all parties to refrain from steps that could further destabilise the situation”.

It is a theme that has been echoed throughout most condemnations over the past few days, condemnation followed by a call for “restraint”, for the parties to “refrain from escalating to the situation”, or for a “proportionate” response from Israel.

Three teenagers were kidnapped and subsequently murdered. At the same time, over 100 rockets have been fired into Israel from Gaza. What might be a proportionate response to acts such as these? How would a restrained response play out? And would President Obama feel the same about restraint if it was his own daughter? I wonder, as he helped her with her homework and tucked her into bed, whether the thought crossed his mind that two of these boys were the very same age as her? It is easy to call for restraint and proportion when you are outside of a situation and are not in any way affected by results of such restraint or proportionality.

The condemnation for the murders from Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon was even more interesting.

He released a statement saying “there can be no justification for the deliberate killing of civilians”. He concluded by calling on “all parties to abide by their obligations under international law and to refrain from any actions that could further escalate this highly tense situation”. The problem here is that we are dealing with a situation where only one side is actually answerable to international law. A terrorist organisation such as Hamas has no obligations to international law and, as Mughrabi’s Haaretz Op-Ed demonstrates, there are plenty of apologists in the West and particularly in its media to run cover for their murderous conduct.

Hamas and its leaders simply cannot be understood on a rational level. One of the rare media sources that seems to understand this is The Australian whose Editorial yesterday said of Hamas, “Evidence of the Palestinian terrorist group’s involvement is overwhelming. Hamas leader Khaled Meshal led the cheer squad that extolled their abductors’ actions. This should lead to an urgent rethink in Western capitals among those who blithely accepted Hamas’s participation in the Palestinian unity government set up by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.”

On the other hand, a perfect example a media source that does not get this is an interview that took place on ABC’s Lateline two nights ago.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for PM Netanyahu was being interviewed by Emma Alberici. She quizzically asked how Israel had pinpointed the perpetrators and how they could be certain that Hamas was involved, even though they had denied involvement.

Regev replied, “I don’t think too many people are taking seriously Hamas’ denials. I can assure you that the Palestinian security services themselves believe Hamas to be behind this attack and this murder. Of course, for all sorts of reasons they are denying it but they don’t deny saying they support kidnappings, they don’t deny saying that every Israeli civilian is in their eyes a legitimate target. It must be understood: Hamas says the State of Israel should be destroyed, that the Jewish State has no right to exist, not in any borders, and Hamas targets all Israeli civilians: men, women, and unfortunately, it’s very clear in this case they target children. They are part of a family of Islamic extremist movements. Whether it’s Boko Haram in Nigeria or ISIS in Iraq or Hezbollah in Lebanon, these are ruthless extremist fanatical organisations that have no compulsion whatsoever about killing innocent people to further their radical extremist theology.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explained it well when he wrote, “Judaism is supremely a religion of life… Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were killed by people who believed in death.”

The funerals of the three boys took place yesterday in their hometowns of Talmon, Nof Ayalon and Elad, before they were buried side-by-side in a cemetery in Modi’in. As I watched footage from Israel I thought about how wrong it seemed for parents to be burying their children, a sentiment that was really eloquently expressed by Finance Minister Yair Lapid. Attending the funeral of Gil-Ad Shaar he said, “Today we are burying a child. To bury a child is unnatural; parents are not supposed to march in a funeral procession for their children; grandparents are not supposed to shed tears over their grandchild’s grave. It’s supposed to be the opposite. When we bury our deceased elderly, we cry over the lives they had lived – over the many memories they’ve left behind. When we bury a child, we cry over the lives they haven’t lived.”

Rabbi Dov Zinger, the dean of Mekor Haim Yeshiva, where Gil-Ad and Naftali were students, gave the first eulogy at the joint burial. He said, “We saw your faces in the past few days, plastered on signs from Brazil to Rabin Square… in the entire world, we saw your goodness”. He also referred to the way the country had united over the past few weeks declaring, “two Jews, three opinions, but one heart”.

The families of all three boys spoke of their sons and brothers, who were taken from this world far too early. None of them laid blame or vowed for revenge, they simply spoke from the heart about the loss of their loved ones. The three mothers in particular, continued to show grace and composure. PM Netanyahu, speaking directly to the three mothers said, “You taught the whole world what a mother’s cry is and what a mother’s love is… Blessed are the boys of such parents and families, and how terrible it is that fate has separated you from them through an evil that is incomprehensible.” Outgoing President Shimon Peres also praised them, declaring, “Your voices united a nation and educated a generation. You, the mothers and fathers, raised children that Israel can be proud of. You inspired in them a love of their people. A love of Torah and a love of the land. You instilled in them devotion and a love of mankind… you turned your grief into a source of hope for the whole nation”.

Rachel Frankel, Naftali’s mother, expressed her thanks to the security forces saying, “Dear soldiers, intelligence personnel and police, we still thank you very, very much. You promised you would find and bring them back. And your brought them back. That is a great kindness, too.” What a wonderful strength of character it shows to be able to thank those involved, even though the outcome was not what they had hoped and prayed for.

She said, “Rest in peace, my son. We’ll learn to sing without you. We’ll always hear your voice inside”.

I cannot imagine what these families went through over the past few weeks, and what they will continue to go through during their mourning period and well beyond when the media packs up and goes home.

The ordeal united a country and mobilised Jews from all over the world to act. It only lasted a brief moment, but I can only hope that we all find ways to remember this moment, as we continue one with our lives. I know I will hug my son just that little bit tighter tonight.

Emily Gian is the Israel Advocacy Analyst at the Zionist Council of Victoria and a PhD Candidate in Israeli Literature at the University of Melbourne


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