A little over two weeks ago, three Israeli teenagers set off for home from the Jewish seminaries, where they were studying near the West Bank city of Hebron. Hitchhiking is not unusual for Israeli teenagers studying in the West Bank, despite its dangers. And the three — Eyal Yifrah, 19; Gilad Shaar, 16; and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship — began the trek home.
They were never heard from or seen again, until Monday, when their corpses were found in a shallow grave.
What does this have to do with the United States? Everything.
The lessons of history are clear: Whenever the U.S. is weak or is perceived as weak, the wheels come off the world — the good guys retreat, the bad guys advance and violence and chaos usually follow.
This is what we are watching unfold now across the Middle East, a region critical to our national security and in which our increasingly vulnerable ally Israel sits.
The abduction and murder of the Israeli teenagers is the latest example of our enemies taking full advantage of American impotence. Iran continues to work 24/7 toward obtaining a nuclear weapon. Russia is delivering jets and experts to Iraq to “assist” the Iraqi army (and their allies the Iranians, as well). The Islamic State marches forward, using civil war-torn Syria as a staging ground for what may prove to be the final assault on what’s left of Iraq.
Israeli and Palestinian authorities have maintained that the boys were abducted by Hamas. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been insisting, in fact, that Israel has “unequivocal proof” of Hamas’s responsibility. Two Hamas members from Hebron are considered the main suspects. Neither has been seen since the boys disappeared. Many Palestinians celebrated the kidnappings with editorial cartoons in Palestinian newspapers, mocking them.
As the search for the boys continued, rhetorical bombast turned to violence as rockets launched from Hamas controlled territory increased in number and the Israeli military retaliated against Hamas controlled territory in Gaza.
Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, and since then, Hamas directed militants have used the Strip to launch rockets toward Israel.
But the number of rockets has escalated markedly in the last month, leading some Israeli military leaders to suggest that Israeli forces may have to take it back. Mr. Netanyahu hasn’t said he would support re-occupation of Gaza, but said that Israeli forces are prepared “if necessary” to expand operations in the area.
Meanwhile, an emboldened Hamas leadership has warned Israel that it will be opening “the gates of hell” if attacks on Hamas positions don’t stop. Plainly stated, Hamas intends to retaliate and rely on Iran for assistance.
At the same time, the Syrian civil war has begun to spill over into Israel along a border that has been fairly stable for decades. The Syrian chaos is more like the pre-World War II Spanish Civil War than a struggle between various factions within Syria itself. Thousands of jihadists from the region, Europe and even the U.S. have flocked to Syria, and several of the factions see victory there as a step on the road to the establishment of a fundamentalist regional hegemony — in essence, a new caliphate that some leading jihadists already have declared.
Of course, these enemies of Israel have always sought its destruction and now are more emboldened than ever to move against her.
Last week, a cross border attack killed an Israeli teenager and two other civilians prompting Israeli forces to retaliate for what Israeli military officials termed an “intentional attack.” Israel’s military struck back quickly, destroying Syrian tanks and a Syrian army headquarters. There had been what the Israeli government termed inadvertent incidents along the border in the past, but this attack was seen as qualitatively different, signaling the deterioration of a once fairly secure border between Israel and Syria.
The escalation of violence against Israel may be a precursor of more violence and destruction to come. The region is increasingly unstable, and if Islamic State forces manage to seize control of Iraq and turn on other “enemies” in the region, Israel will face increasing danger.
Indeed, many within Israel itself suspect that through no fault of her own but thanks in large part to American weakness, the Gates of Hell may already be ajar.
• Monica Crowley, the Online Opinion Editor of The Washington Times, is a respected foreign policy analyst who holds a doctorate in international relations from Columbia University, is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations and served as Foreign Policy Assistant to former President Richard Nixon during from 1990 until his death in 1994.