With the Israeli Air Force pounding dozens of targets inside Gaza Tuesday in retaliation for the death of three Israeli teens believed to have been murdered at the hands of Palestinian militants, the stars appear to be aligned for an especially fierce spasm of new violence between the two sides.
“We are in a very combustible situation,” Uzi Rabi, a historian at Tel Aviv University, said Tuesday, adding that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing mounting pressure not only from hawkish government ministers in Jerusalem but an increasingly unified Israeli public to expand the military incursion into Gaza. Factors that kept past clashes in relative check are not in play this time, the analyst said.
In an incident that shook Israeli popular opinion, tens of thousands of Israeli mourners converged in central Israel for a funeral service for the three teenage boys, whose bodies were discovered Monday in the West Bank after a two-week search and crackdown on the Hamas militant group in the Palestinian-controlled territory.
Speculation has swirled through Israeli and American national security circles over the extent to which Hamas leadership sanctioned the killing of the boys, one of whom was a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. But Israeli authorities have broadly pinned the murders on Hamas.
The incident as a whole — coming after the collapse of a yearlong, U.S.-brokered attempt to breath life into Israeli-Palestinian peace talks — has sparked a fresh and unusually deep unity among Israeli citizens divided during recent years on whether their government should be unleashing military force against Hamas. Symbolizing the lack of movement between the two sides, Martin Indyk, Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s special envoy to the region, resigned his post last week after just a year on the job.
“This kind of terror attack, more than other terror attacks, has really struck a chord in the public at large,” Neri Zilber, a scholar with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in a telephone interview from Israel on Tuesday evening.
In addition, Mr. Zilber said, politics inside the Netanyahu government itself are making the situation “more dangerous than it otherwise might be, because Netanyahu cannot afford to look weak to his own right-wing base.”
Tension has risen steadily since April, when Hamas, which Israel and the United States continue to label a terrorist organization, suddenly reached an agreement to form a “unity government” with the more moderate Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank.
However, the Obama administration ultimately turned a blind eye to the development last month, announcing that it would continue disbursing some $440 million in American aid to the West Bank and Gaza through the end of 2014.
The move infuriated Mr. Netanyahu, who has asserted that the Palestinian Authority had essentially rejected the peace process in favor of aligning with a “murderous terror organization that calls for the destruction of Israel.”
Some Israeli Defense Forces officers and moderate members in Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet, such as Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, may still be calling for calm. But Mr. Zilber said Tuesday that the Israeli prime minister is likely to prefer their criticism to the hammering he may receive from Israeli hawks if he fails to violently confront Hamas in the wake of the emotional murders.
“He can’t afford to be outflanked [by] the Israeli right [and] certain ministers in his own government, and even certain ministers in his own party,” Mr. Zilber said, adding that Mr. Netanyahu is being “hammered by right-wing ministers arguing for a really forceful response.”
The Obama administration, meanwhile, has attempted to align with Israeli moderates, calling for restraint during recent days. But the deaths of Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16 and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship, have already prompted heated rhetoric from Mr. Netanyahu, who vowed on Monday night that “Hamas will pay.”