Murder in the West Bank

A horrific crime in the West Bank rehashes old wounds between the Israeli and Palestinian communities.

With the increasingly bloody battle in Libya, a ramped up protest movement in Yemen and a transitional government in Tunisia struggling to get off the ground, it’s no surprise that we haven’t been hearing much news from the Israeli-Palestinian front. For some who have grown sick and tired of the conflict, this is good news. A democratic wave in the Middle East is far more of an optimistic story than a peace process that is stagnating to the point of futility. Unfortunately, for those same people, they may be reading many more articles about Israel-Palestine now that something extraordinarily tragic has occurred within the last few days.

In the middle of the night this past Saturday, five Israeli civilians in the West Bank, three of whom were young children aged 11, 4 and 3 months, were attacked in their sleep and stabbed to death by a knife wielding assailant. By the time Israeli police arrived on the scene, all five members of the family succumbed to their wounds.

As tragic as the story is, it looks like a simple homicide which every modern day police force is trained to deal with. Yet it seems that this brazen attack was much more significant. Israeli military officials have concluded that it was a Palestinian militant who perpetuated the assault.

The offender having Palestinian roots is significant for a number of reasons. First of all, Israeli settlers in the West Bank have been particularly safe from these types of attacks over the past five years, as Palestinian Security Forces under American training increased throughout the territory. Indeed, the last time an Israeli settler was murdered in such a way was during the violent period of the Palestinian intifada, in which Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip rose up and revolted against Israeli authorities.

While it is certainly too soon to jump to conclusions, the reemergence of this same tactic may signal an attempt by radicals (whoever those radicals are) to take advantage of the lull in the peace process. They are most likely hoping that Israel retaliates against Palestinian civilians living in the immediate area, spurring more division between both communities.

Interestingly enough, AFP reports that the same settlement (named Itamar) was targeted by a Palestinian infiltrator in 2002, resulting in the deaths of a mother and her three children. Itamar is located close to the northern West Bank city of Nablus, which in the past saw a number of violent attacks between Israeli settlers, soldiers and Palestinians.

Whether or not a resident from Nablus planned the attack is still open for debate, but as of now, the Israeli military is working on that assumption as it launches its investigation.

If there is any good news that can be strung from his horrific crime, it is the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas talked briefly with one another by telephone about the incident — the first such direct communication from the two since peace talks broke down last year. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has condemned the killing in the strongest terms while the United States and the Middle East Quartet issued similar declarations.

As is the case in such an emotional environment, tempers could flare and rhetoric among the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority will likely heat up as the investigation continues.

Netanyahu already demanded that Abbas pledge full cooperation and do more to stop Palestinian “incitement” in mosques across the West Bank. A day after the killings, Israel approved the construction of hundreds of new settlement units in the West Bank. Officials said the plan had been on the docket for a long time. In any event, the news will not improve the environment for negotiations.

If the investigation is to be genuine, legitimate, thorough and ultimately successful though, both the Israeli military and the Palestinian Security Forces will need to bite their lips and work together in an effective manner.

Israelis and Palestinians disagree on a lot of issues. Cold blooded murder doesn’t have to be one of them.