The Near Enemy

Why the Real Threat to Israel Isn't in Gaza

Ultra-Orthodox protesters pray during clashes in the town of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem. (Courtesy Reuters)

With Hamas busy firing rockets at Israeli cities, it's only natural that the Israeli public's primary concern in recent days has been physical security. But it should also be attuned to other, equally dangerous, problems posed by the current crisis. As Israel shifts to war footing, the authority of the Israeli state and the country's ability to remain a pluralistic democracy are under threat.

Following the horrific murder last month of three teenagers -- Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach -- who were from Israeli settlements in the West Bank and were kidnapped and then shot by a Hamas cell from Hebron, anger and grief quickly turned into calls for revenge. Political figures from the ultra-right party Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home) and extremist members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party demanded an immediate response, incitements that quickly echoed through Israeli social media. Ultranationalist and messianic elements within Israeli society predictably proved eager to answer the call. They were soon harassing and sometimes attacking innocent Muslims in the streets of Israeli cities and settlements -- a wave of hate crimes that reached its peak with the heinous murder of a Palestinian teen, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was kidnapped and burned alive by a group of Israeli extremists.

As news of Khdeir's death spread, it seemed for a moment that Israelis had been shocked into recognizing the dire consequences of inflammatory and hateful calls for revenge. Netanyahu himself vehemently condemned the murder and any incitement against innocent Arabs, even as he drew attention to how Israelis and Palestinians respond to racially motivated violence. However, as has happened too often in the past, self-reflection -- consideration about within Israel about the boundaries for legitimate speech and the state's monopoly on the legitimate use of force -- quickly gave way to escalating violence between Israel and Palestine. Once more, conflict has distracted Israelis from the fact that radical, messianic, and xenophobic forces have gained significant ground in the battle for the soul of their state.

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