Why today I’m reflecting on the deplorable killing of 3 Israeli teenagers

On hearing the news that 3 bodies have been found in the West Bank that are suspected to be the three abducted Israeli teenagers, Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach,  that went missing almost three weeks ago I posted the following facebook status:


I was referring to the fact that some armed groups have claimed responsibility for the killings (inc an ISIS affiliated group, and Sarayat al-Quds, the military wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad). If it is shown that one of these groups, or Hamas as the Israeli government keeps claiming, is responsible, then the killings would constitute a war crime.

Almost immediately comments began to follow that status update with comments on context and the atrocious backlash that the Palestinian population has suffered after the abductions in recent weeks. Comments came thick and fast about what we have already witnessed: Israeli forces’ arresting hundreds of Palestinians, raids and damage of property, enforced restrictions on freedom of movement, the continued widespread use of administrative detention and of course a series of killings.

From these comments I assume that people felt one of two things. Either that they thought that by condemning one act of violence I was somehow tacitly condoning another. And/or that some context was needed to the killings of the teenagers for those who read my facebook status updates to understand ‘the other side of the story’.

Whilst I strongly reject the first (for hopefully obvious reasons) the latter needs a bit more exploration.

I strongly agree with the assertion that context is important in understanding violence and human rights abuses. It is essential. I would be fascinated to hear anyone argue anything different. Equally, as a human rights activist the principle of impartiality is important – so I would be equally as passionate about condemning killing of civilian x as I would of civilian y.

The perpetrator is not important, but the context is.

With this said, why then would my facebook status not include the ‘other side of the story’ that so quickly emerged in the comments below?

Firstly, like so many, that status came as a result of reading about and then empathizing with all those affected by the killing of the three boys. It was a knee jerk reaction to a deplorable act. The words that came to hand was that of emotion and human rights, “deplorable act” “war crime” etc.

This facebook status wasn’t an essay, an analysis or trying to make any wider point. It was simply a comment on a deplorable act to illustrate that International Humanitarian Law condemns such behaviour.

Secondly though there is also an issue around comparing and/or contrasting people’s suffering. Not only do I find this morally uneasy but also at times pragmatically unhelpful. I am not convinced that trying to compare levels of suffering is helpful to anyone. In contrast, I can see others use the language of others suffering to perpetrate further atrocities. For me, the death of anyone’s loved one deserves a mark of respect, not a reduction of that life into a statistic to be used and abused for political ends.

With that said, a balance at this point then has to be struck. Clearly those in power are not following this line of thought and are already using these tragic deaths to justify furthering a pattern of events that have been occurring for much longer than the last three weeks.

Netanyahu has openly blamed Hamas for the killings and has promised revenge for what he described as a murder “in cold blood by human animals”. As a result we have already seen a sharp increase in the bombing of the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli housing minister, Uri Ariel, has called for the extrajudicial executions of leaders of Hamas and for Israel to “start a wave of construction in the settlements in response to the murder of the abductees.” – something which in itself would be the cause of forced displacement, a myriad of human rights violations and is a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law (IHL).

So simply ignoring the context isn’t sufficient either. Mourning the loss of innocent civilians whilst watching on at the on-going violations of others is as equally morally and pragmatically undesirable.

The challenge for myself, and others then looking to comment on these killings and the atrocious backlash being experienced across the Occupied Palestinian Territory, is how we speak out in an equal and fair way without reducing people’s suffering to just statistics or worse, campaigns fodder.

This is something that I am still struggling with and thinking about. For now, I use human rights language. Hence my response as I tried to keep it simple when responding to one friend who asked about the killings of Palestinian children:

facebook 2


While some might think of human rights language as cold and legalistic, I think of it as a powerful liberal tool that encapsulates the importance of the individual. It is not always perfect but it does allow space for people to expand on individual violations when they want.

This morning I chose expand on the deplorable killings of three Israeli teenagers. This has no bearing on my thoughts on the other violations occurring in the region.


Filed under Human rights, Middle East

8 responses to “Why today I’m reflecting on the deplorable killing of 3 Israeli teenagers

  1. richardarmbach

    Steve all gratuitous killing is a crije against humanity.However, there are numerous and regular killings of kids on the WB overwhelmingly by the IOF. I am just wondering why you chose to reflect on and write a blog post about these particular three. Very recently two kids were executed by the IOF walking home from school. I don’t recall you reflecting on and writing a blog post about these. So clearly you don’t reflect on and write blog posts about them all. Why did you do so about these three ? I am not saying you should not have I am just curious about how you came to make the choice.


    • I don’t think it was a conscious choice as such – maybe a sub-conscious reflection on the fact that these three have had so much media coverage…like a lot of people I think I became engaged in their disappearance without realizing it.


  2. richardarmbach2

    Steve all gratuitous killing is a crime against humanity. But there is an awful lot of killing of kids going on in the WB overwhelmingly by the IOF. Very recently two kids were executed by the IOF when walking home from school. Given that there is an awful lot to choose from why did you choose to reflect on and write a blog post on these particular three ? Just curious.


  3. Rafeef Ziadah – ‘We teach life, sir’, London, 12.11.11


  4. I think what I believe to be your impulse – to make any very early response to the deaths of the boys purely focused on the sadness, the criminality, their families’ feelings etc – is right. I was noting elsewhere that it’s unbelievable that some people on Twitter can’t even focus on the teenagers for just 140 characters. And then of course, after a pause, you can reflect (without in any way equivocating about the murders) on concerns about reprisals etc.


  5. Phil Irvine

    Hi Steve, a great article, as always.

    A quick question, which is in no means meant to detract from the sadness of the loss of lives of the teenagers. Do you know whether under international law non-military settlers in occupied territories are still considered to be civilians? I assume that they are, but of course even if they are not, the in custody killing of anyone, military or not, is still a war crime.


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