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A dangerous turning point in Israel [Editorial]

As the situation in Israel threatens to spiral out of control, that nation's leaders took important steps on Sunday to rein in a cycle of violence that began with the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens last month. The arrest of six Israelis in the killing of a Palestinian teenager, who was reportedly beaten and burned, and strong words from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others describing the killing as a horrific crime and the work of "Jewish terrorists," should send a message to militants and radicals on both sides that the growing vigilantism in Israel and the occupied territories will not be tolerated. We can only hope it is not too late.

The latest violence in Israel comes within a broad political context of mistrust between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Dogged efforts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to restart peace talks failed for a variety of reasons, including continued Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and the formation of a Palestinian "unity government" that includes both the relatively moderate Palestinian Authority and Hamas, a terrorist group that does not recognize Israel's right to exist.

Israel's initial response to the kidnapping of the three teens, who had been hitchhiking in the West Bank, was to view the crime in a political context. Mr. Netanyahu blamed Hamas, and Israel launched military operations in the West Bank to search for the teens and anyone who might have been connected with their disappearance. Hundreds of Palestinians, including much of Hamas' leadership in the West Bank, were arrested, and at least five Palestinians were killed. Palestinian Authority leaders, including President Mahmoud Abbas, decried the kidnappings and killings, but Hamas praised them. Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip also launched a new round of rocket attacks on Israel in response to the Israeli operations in the West Bank, and Israel has retaliated with air strikes, most recently one that reportedly killed at least six Palestinians (though Israel denies this).

All that is tragic but sadly familiar. What is different, though, is the extent to which this conflict has moved from the political to the personal. Whether the kidnapping of the Israeli teens — Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16 — was in any way orchestrated by Hamas officials or just the work of demented fanatics is not yet certain, but the kidnapping, torture and killing last week of Palestinian Muhammed Abu Khdeir, 16, appears to have been the work of radicals bent on revenge. This no longer has the feel of a conflict over the borders and security arrangements of a potential Palestinian state but of a blood feud.

Mr. Netanyahu appears to recognize the stakes. He was slower to speak out about that killing than Muhammed's relatives and supporters wanted, but his public offering of condolences to the Abu Khdeir family and his assertion that Israel would not tolerate terrorists of any kind appeared designed to ratchet down tensions. Unfortunately, it's not clear whether that effort will be effective on either side.

From a Palestinian perspective, there is a real disconnect between Israel's treatment of the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens as a political act for which Hamas should be punished militarily and its handling of the kidnapping and murder of a Palestinian teen as a crime meriting a law enforcement response. The beating of Muhammed's cousin, Baltimore-born Tariq Abu Khdeir, 15, by Israeli police, which was caught on video, threatens to intensify matters. Mr. Netanyahu is asking the Palestinians to believe that Israel will produce justice for Muhammed's family at the same time that Israeli police are bludgeoning one if its members.

Meanwhile, it is clear that Mr. Netanyahu has limited sway over public opinion, particularly among Israel's far right, which was pushing him for an even more aggressive response to the teens' kidnapping last month. His display of anger over Muhammed's killing, though politically courageous and wise, may serve only to inflame those on the right who have no interest in peace with the Palestinians. Calls for revenge have reportedly flourished in social media in Israel — just as they have among Palestinians.

There is increasingly reason to fear that what has been a conflict between the Jewish state and the aspirations for a Palestinian one is turning into a war between the Israeli and Palestinian people. The conscience of Israelis should be shocked by the kidnapping and killing of a Palestinian teen, just as Palestinians should be appalled by the murder of three innocent Israelis. If both sides cannot muster such basic empathy, the violence may have no end.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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