Government ministers argued bitterly Monday night about Israel’s proper response to the killing of three abducted teenagers whose bodies had been found that afternoon. While right-wing cabinet members called for an immediate and extensive operation to punish Hamas and severely damage the organization’s capabilities, as well as expanding settlement construction, others, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, did not want to rush to action and seemed to prefer a more measured response.
After three hours, the cabinet session ended without conclusions. Another session was scheduled for Tuesday evening.
The bodies of the three teens — Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gil-ad Shaar, 16 and Naftali Fraenkel, 16 — were found partially buried in a field near the West Bank village of Halhul, north of Hebron.
During Monday’s stormy session, economy minister and Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett listed eight possible actions Israel should take, including launching a major operation against Hamas in Gaza, freezing Hamas funds currently in banks in the West Bank, increasing Israeli construction in the West Bank, and imposing the death penalty on terrorists tried by a military court, a source who attended the meeting told the Haaretz daily.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon also suggested expanding construction in the settlement blocs in response to the killing, according to Ynet. Communications Minister Gilad Erdan added that building tenders should be approved in the West Bank, in areas outside of the blocs. But Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid fiercely opposed the move, with Livni arguing that adopting the position as a response to the deaths of the teenagers would only further delegitimize settlement construction within the blocs.
Earlier that evening IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz recommended striking at Hamas facilities, but mainly those that have already been weakened by the 18-day operation to find the captured teens. According to the source, a draft of the cabinet decisions, about 10 paragraphs long, mostly listed steps Israel would take in the future and did not include concrete military operations.
“There are efforts to expel Hamas operatives to Gaza, even though the attorney general said the issue is stuck due to legal difficulties,” the source said. “There were suggestions such as continuing the operation against Hamas’s civilian infrastructure in the West Bank or an ongoing operation to locate the kidnappers, but nothing significant.”
Bennett fumed at these suggestions. “The response currently being discussed is weak to the point of disgracefulness,” he reportedly exclaimed. “There was a grave incident of a kidnapping of three children who were executed at point-blank range. Such a weak response to an event so severe will guarantee the next kidnapping.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, Ya’alon disagreed with Bennett, saying his recommendations could spark an escalation that might be difficult to control. It could even lead to a new war, Ya’alon warned. “Do we really want a war in Gaza now?” the defense minister asked rhetorically, according to the source, to which Bennett replied that an eventual war with Gaza was inevitable. “It’s preferable that we’re the ones who initiate it.”
Livni also opposed drastic measures against Hamas, arguing that in the past too there were horrible attacks, but that Israel cannot go to war for every act of terrorism. Erdan agreed with Bennett that the measures proposed by security forces were insufficient, but also said he opposed a wide-scale operation that could lead to escalation.
On Tuesday politicians continued to call for strict punishment for the killing of the Israeli teens, but also support for moderate Palestinian leaders.
Lapid sent his condolences to the grieving families and warned that Hamas would “pay a heavy price” for the deaths.
“My heart was broken by the news that the bodies of Naftalie, Gilad, and Eyal were found,” he said. “I want to send a warm embrace to the families and assure them that we will continue to pursue those responsible for this crime.
“Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay a heavy price,” he continued. “We will continue to act with determination and patience until we find these murderers. That is our duty in the face of those who would try to harm our children’s security.”
MK Ze’ev Elkin, chairman of the Knesset’s influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, called for the imposition of the death sentence for the perpetrators of the murders, a sentence that is not currently part of Israel’s penal code.
Elkin told Israel Radio said that the homes of the two prime suspects in the crime, Hamas member Amer Abu Aysha and Marwan Kawasme, both from Hebron, should be destroyed. He asserted that destroying the homes of terrorists had been demonstrated to be a an effective deterrent in the past. The lawmaker, who lives in a settlement in the Etzion bloc, also urged increased settlement development in response to the murders in order to cement Israel’s hold on the territory.
However, MK Nachman Shai (Labor Party) warned against taking any harsh and hasty actions that could turn world opinion against Israel and cause the international community to hold Israel responsible for a deterioration in the situation. Shai told Israel Radio that a long-term and thorough response is preferred.
MK Zahava Gal-on, leader of the dovish Meretz party, said the killings are a “war crime” but also urged support for the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, which had assisted Israeli security forces in their search for the teens.
“I send my condolences to the Yifrach, Shaar, and Fraenkel families,” she said in a statement posted to her Facebook page Monday night. “Kidnapping and murdering boys is a war crime that should be punished to the full extent of the law. Yet, especially at this time, it is imperative to make the difference between those who are responsible for this criminal act and the Palestinian authorities who denounced it, led by Palestinian Authority President [Mahmoud Abbas].”
“Alongside the denouncing and determined punishment of the murderers and those who sent them, we should take diplomatic steps to support these moderate authorities,” she said.
Meretz MK Esawi Frij offered his condolences but also cautioned against lashing out in response to the killings.
“Today is a sad day, a day when of us join in the pain of the three families who lost their loved ones,” he said. “Despite the sorrow, voices in the government are already being heard and they are combative — to smash and break, to overwhelm. The bitter truth is that revenge may be sweet at first but it hurts afterwards.”
Over the two-week search for the teens, Abbas condemned the kidnapping and pledged PA cooperation in the search.
The two Hamas men Israel believes were the perpetrators, Aysha and Kawasme, have been missing from their homes in Hebron’s Hares neighborhood ever since the kidnapping took place. They were allegedly in the car in which the three were abducted.
The two were still at large Tuesday, and Israel’s security forces were making intensive efforts to track them down.