Is there anything sadder than the killing of children? Of course not, and no one should be surprised at the shock, distress and outrage in Israel after the bodies of three missing teenagers were found Monday. The boys, kidnapped more than two weeks ago, were apparently shot and then partially buried in an open field near the West Bank village of Halhul. What kind of world, what kind of politics, can possibly justify the abduction of teenagers in the name of ideology or nationalism or religion or whatever it turns out was the motivation for this gruesome act?
If, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggests, the kidnappings were the work of Hamas, they should serve as a stark reminder that the militant Islamic organization has not changed its ways. Since its founding during the first intifada in 1987, Hamas has been responsible for countless civilian deaths, and its leaders — notwithstanding their recent reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority — have not evolved substantially since then. Hamas has not officially endorsed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or promised to renounce violence or acknowledged Israel's right to exist. It's unclear as yet what its role was, if any, in these most recent events, but its top officials loudly celebrated the kidnappings. Hamas obviously cannot be a meaningful partner in the search for peace as long as it remains committed to violence and rejectionism.
At the same time, the killing of the Israeli boys must not become a pretext for further withdrawal from the ailing peace process. If anything, the events of the last two weeks are a heartrending reminder of the high price of disengagement.
"Hamas will pay," Netanyahu vowed after the boys' bodies were found, and indeed, the crackdown is already underway. But Israel must behave carefully and responsibly rather than emotionally. Of course it must defend its citizens against enemies. But Netanyahu must also display the evidence he says he has that Hamas orchestrated the killings. He must minimize civilian casualties and not engage in the collective punishment of people who have done no wrong. He must not undermine those Palestinian leaders, such as President Mahmoud Abbas, who say and do the right things. Israel — as well as the Palestinians — must find reasons to come back to the negotiating table rather than seeking excuses to walk away.
This conflict, like other conflicts around the world, has killed many innocent children. Some are Israeli children who have died at the hands of terrorists. Others are Palestinian children who have become collateral damage in repeated Israeli assaults on Hamas and other groups. The tragedy for parents, for neighbors, for communities is real either way. The latest deaths must not become a justification for an escalation of violence, for the continued death of innocents or for yet another downward spiral in the depressing and destabilizing war that so often seems to be moving in exactly the wrong direction.