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Five Jews Murdered in West Bank

Attack prompts Israeli outrage, muted Palestinian response

Marc Tracy
March 14, 2011
The funeral today in Jerusalem.(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
The funeral today in Jerusalem.(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

To say that five people died sounds bloodless, literally and otherwise. So to be more specific: Five members of the Fogel family—father Udi, a rabbi; mother Ruth; children Yoav (11), Elad (4) and Hadas (3 … months)—were murdered, stabbed, in their home Friday night in Itamar, a settlement in the northern West Bank. Blessedly, three of the Fogel children survived: Tamar, 12, was sleeping at a neighbor’s, and in fact was the first outsider to realize that something had happened; and two other siblings, in the house, were spared—one, 7, survived by hiding under the covers.

According to news reports, the baby’s throat was slashed but she still had a pulse—was, still alive, three months old—when the ambulance arrived at the scene long after the reported attack. The thought that she spent hours in physical and perhaps psychological torture before dying is unbearable, which is why this was terrorism at is purest.

There are a lot of questions and political implications packed into the above event, and they aren’t unimportant, and they deserve scrutiny. I’ll explore them after the jump. But first, please do whatever it is you do—whether you pray, meditate, or just take a moment—before you click ahead. And you can first click here, which the Israeli Public Ministry is trying to publicize to see photos of the slain Fogel family.

It has not yet been firmly established who killed the Fogels; the IDF is currently conducting a massive manhunt in the West Bank looking for those responsible. They do currently suspect Palestinians. “The killers appeared to have randomly picked the house,” the New York Times reports, “one of a neat row of identical one-story homes at the edge of the settlement, on a rocky incline overlooking the nearby Palestinian village of Awarta.” That location, as well as the fact that the attackers apparently first entered a different house only to find it empty, to my unexpert hearing militates in favor of the suggestion that this was an ideologically motivated terrorist attack against Jewish settlers. (A systematic failure on the Army’s part has been blamed for the breach.) A Palestinian Authority minister has argued that Palestinians were not involved in the attack, partly on the basis that it will not help the Palestinian cause.

Well … whose Palestinian cause? Hamas praised it, arguing, “According to the international law, Palestinian resistance factions have the full right to resist any kind of occupation on the land of Palestine.” (Not that it is much of its business, but Iran praised the attack too A semi-official Iranian news agency ackwardly paraphrased the statement of one group that took responsibility for the attack: “The operation was a natural response to the crimes of the Zionist regime against the Palestinian people.”) Prime Minister Fayyad was relatively quick to condemn the attack, while President Abbas (who is in charge) was less so, basically waiting all of Saturday before issuing an unconscionably bland “condemnation” and “rejection” of “violence” (it bears repeating at this point that a three-month old baby had her throat slashed). It wasn’t until today that he found harsher, and more accurate, words to describe the attack.

The upheaval throughout the Arab world has put added pressure on Abbas to accede to more democratic governance. The problem is that more democratic governance in the West Bank would, if the prior elections were any indication, involve more power for Hamas. Which, if it turns out Hamas was behind the attack—and some have already noted that a senior Hamas operative was released from a Hebron prison only a few hours beforehand—could provide an explanation for it: Hamas wishing to create a crisis atmosphere that will require Abbas to either firmly side with Israel (making him unpalatable to much of his people) or with his people (making him unpalatable to Israel).

The White House called the murders a “terrorist attack.”

It seems to have shaken Israeli society far more than, say, the murder last August of four settlers in the southern West Bank. Prime Minister Netanyahu reserved some blame for the P.A. itself: “The time has come to stop this double-speak in which the Palestinian Authority outwardly talks peace and allows—and sometimes leads—incitement at home,” he said. The mayor of the nearby settlement of Ariel went a step further, laying responsibility not only at the hands of Palestinian incitement but of left-wing Israeli journalists.

More provocatively, Saturday night, the ministerial committee on settlement affairs approved the construction of 500 new homes in various West Bank settlements; as if to underline that this approval came in direct response to the Fogel murders, hard-right-wing Interior Minister Eli Yishai declared at a cabinet meeting today that there must be “at least a thousand new homes for each person murdered,” a reckless dare that I hope neither side takes up.

An Abbas spokesperson condemned the announcement—more quickly, it must be said, than Abbas condemned the attack itself. The U.S. also issued a statement declaring the building conunterproductive to peace. By Sunday, Palestinian newspapers were basically treating the attack and the building as a “he said, she said.” (There were also reports throughout America of tens of thousands of Jews banging their heads against the nearest walls, bemoaning the fact that, first, Israel is in a position where approving more homes will be seen by many in the international community as basically the equivalent of the killing of five innocent people; and that, second, Israel, knowing this, decided to do it anyway.)

Finally, there is a report that the killer or killers first entered a different house, only to find the residents not home—it turns out the Chai family was on vacation. But it was their pure luck, rather than their fortuitous name, that saved them from the Fogels’ fate.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.