The discovery of the bodies of three Israeli teens kidnapped in early June in the occupied West Bank touched Nissim Ibarith in a way that most other Israeli tragedies haven’t.
“They were just boys,” said Ibarith, a Palestinian Israeli from the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm.
Ibarith heard the news during his shift sweeping the parking lot at a popular American-style mall just 10 miles from his hometown and felt “angry,” he told the Forward.
But some of his feelings would still likely anger many Jewish Israelis. “Maybe a soldier, okay,” said Ibarith. “There is a war, there are problems. But a child? What did he do and what can he do?”
Ibarith, who is 26, spoke of Israel as “my state,” and said that he also felt an affinity to the Palestinians killed as a result of his country’s search operation in the West Bank. He is caught in the middle and feels pain “for the two sides,” he said, commenting: “I’m a Muslim Arab and also a citizen of Israel.”
The location of this strip mall makes it a commercial center for a highly diverse population. Pardes Hanna, within whose borders it sits, is a mainly Jewish town, surrounded by a variety of socially and religiously diverse Jewish locales. The mall also serves a large part of the heavily Arab Wadi Ara area, which borders the West Bank. The region includes Ibarith’s hometown, which is known as a stronghold of the Islamic Movement of Israel, an Islamist, anti-Zionist organization. On June 27, Umm al-Fahm was the focus of fury for many Israelis after protesters at a demonstration there were heard calling for more kidnappings.
Ironically, in his statement issued soon after the youths’ death was announced, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to exclude Arab citizens like Ibarith from sharing in the national sense of grief over the murder of their fellow citizens. He instead seemed to speak as the leader of world Jewry.
“They were abducted and murdered in cold blood by human animals,” Netanyahu said in his statement. “On behalf of the entire Jewish People, I would like to tell the dear families — the mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, and brothers and sisters — we are deeply saddened, the entire nation weeps with you.”
Around here, some Arabs are without any of the dual loyalties that Ibarith professed. At a train station near the mall, just after the news broke of the bodies being discovered, one Arab man gave the Forward short shrift when asked for his reaction. “I didn’t hear, and it doesn’t interest me,” he said. “I don’t get involved in politics.”
Asked if this was only politics, he replied, “What is it if it’s not politics?”
At the mall, Meir Ben-Zagmim said that the discovery of the bodies came to him as a shock. “I thought they would come out alive,” said the 60-year-old truck driver, who wears a yarmulke. “I was sure they would make a prisoner swap and they would come out alive.”
Anat, a 44-year-old lawyer who would give only her first name, said the opposite. She as-good-as-mourned the teens from the moment they were taken, and felt little new emotion when the bodies were discovered. “I knew it from the first day that they were dead,” she said.
Rutie, who also declined to be fully identified, took some comfort in the discovery of the bodies. The 53-year-old mother was shopping with her 12-year-old daughter, who said she was “hurting” from the news. “I felt it’s good they found them, so at least the families know — so they aren’t in limbo,” the girl’s mother said, adding, “I thought there was a possibility they wouldn’t find them for years.”
Many Israeli Jews have had the sense of being tied up in the tragedy since the boys’ kidnapping took place on June 12. Ben-Zagmim said: “I felt it like their families felt it.” He explained that his feelings stemmed from his connection to the victims and their families as a Jew and as an Israeli. But not everyone felt that connection.
At the train station, Alon, 26, said that he wasn’t “moved more than for other people in the world.” He “didn’t feel a connection especially as an Israeli or as a Jewish person.”
Alon’s father, Ilan, arrived to give him a ride, and had surprisingly strong sentiments. He felt a connection to the teens, he said, but not to their parents, on whom he placed responsibility for educating them in the West Bank and for allowing them to hitchhike. When asked if the parents deserved the same solidarity as was given to Noam Shalit, the father of former POW Gilad Shalit, he was irritated. The respective circumstances of each case, he said, were “totally different” as Shalit was a soldier performing a national duty. Neither father nor son would give their full names.
For many Israeli Jews, there was a clear line between Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. Ben-Zagmim thought that Israel should flex its muscles against the Palestinians in the West Bank, but not react against Israeli-Arabs, some of whom he enjoys good relationships with. An Arab colleague, he added, shares his disdain for the kidnapping.
Some, however, see things differently.
“I didn’t cry but the tears are inside,” said Eli Mazger, 56, for whom the boys’ blood felt “like part of my blood.” Heading to his car in the mall parking lot just after 10 p.m. local time on the day the discovery of the youths’ bodies was announced, he asked: “Why are there still Arabs here at this time?” To him, after the kidnapping, every Arab, whether Palestinian or Israeli citizen, is “suspicious.” Mazger advocated a blanket curfew, saying: “Every Israeli Arab should need to be at home at 7pm.”
Such calls are fringe, and don’t have support in the government, where the focus is on responding strongly against Palestinian terrorists. Though no evidence had yet been presented tying Hamas’ leadership to the kidnapping, Netanyahu averred in his statement that “Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay.”
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon released a statement shortly after the boys were found, declaring: “In their memories, we must ensure that this tragic end be turned into an opportunity to create a better and safer Israel. Israelis have the willingness and the fortitude necessary to endure the hardships of a long-lasting operation aimed at eradicating Hamas.”
He promised: “We will not stop until Hamas is completely defeated. The homes of the terrorists must be demolished and their arms caches destroyed. Our mission will not be complete until all the terror organizations are deterred from attacking Israelis and understand once and for all that the people of Israel will not be threatened.”
At the West Bank yeshiva where the boys studied, Mekor Chaim, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the renowned Talmudist who heads the school, framed the murder as an act of simple anti-Semitism, implicitly rejecting the views of those who say the youths placed themselves at increased risk by hitchhiking in occupied territory just outside the tense city of Hebron.
“These boys, our boys, have died al Kiddush Hashem” — in sanctification of God’s name — “simply because they are Jews,” Steinsaltz declared. “We cannot just light a candle and say a prayer. It is up to us now to live our lives in Kiddush Hashem, to sanctify God through our deeds and our lives.”