Hundreds of people gathered outside London’s Israeli embassy on Wednesday night to pay their respects to the three teenagers kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank following one of the most painful and tense weeks for the state in recent years, writes Justin Cohen.
The hopes and prayers of millions around the globe were tragically ended on Monday night when the bodies of Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar were discovered under rocks in a field near Hebron.
It is believed the trio were shot shortly after their abduction 18 days earlier. “We will have to learn to sing without you,” Naftali’s distraught mother, who had led the public appeals in Israel and internationally for their return, said during a ceremony for her son ahead of a joint state funeral on Tuesday.“Everyone says you are now children of the world to come. We had hoped you would have many years in this world.”
Hours after their Israeli flag-draped coffins were lowered into the ground alongside each other in front of an estimated 100,000 mourners at the cemetery in Modiin, Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that the country would not rest until every person involved in the kidnapping and killings had been apprehended.
Speaking ahead of the second meeting of his security cabinet in 24 hours – amid significant differences between ministers on the nature of Israel’s response – the prime minister vowed to “vigorously strike” at Hamas members and infrastructure in the West Bank and in Gaza. “Hamas is responsible. Hamas will pay and Hamas will continue to pay,” he insisted.
But Israel has so far stopped short of a full-scale military operation – a move which would be significantly complicated by the fact the murders took place in the West Bank rather than Gaza.
But, while calls for restraint were heard inside Israel and across the international community, hundreds of Israeli right-wingers marched through downtown Jerusalem following the funeral, demanding revenge and chanting anti-Arab slogans. Police made more than 50 arrests as tensions reached boiling point.
The simmering crisis in the capital threatened to escalate still further on Wednesday following the murder of 16-year-old Mohammad Hussein Abu Khdir, whose partly burned body was discovered in the Jerusalem forest.
While Israeli police yet to determine whether there was a criminal or nationalistic revenge motive behind the murder, the city’s mayor Nir Barkat condemned the “horrific and barbaric” act while Netanyahu instructed law enforcement agencies to investigate who was behind the “reprehensible murder”.
The Board of Deputies, which had early expressed disgust at the fate of the three Israelis, said following the Palestinian’s death: “At this fragile time – in aftermath of the killings of the three Israeli teenagers – we all have a responsibility to promote an atmosphere in which peace and justice, rather than violence and aggression, can prevail. We all need to see the humanity in one another; this region does not need any more grieving mothers.”
But tensions were not just felt in Jerusalem. As Israelis struggled with this week’s news, they also had to contend with the firing of around 20 rockets towards the state – which Israel’s military responded to with air strikes. In Britain, Conservative Friends of Israel urged the Government to withdraw its support for the Palestinians unity administration, which includes Hamas.
David Cameron was one of the first world leaders to condemn the murders of the three Israeli teens, describing the killings as an “inexcusable act of terror perpetrated against teenagers” and pledging the UK “will stand with Israel as it seeks justice”.
The tragedy was also discussed at length in the House of Commons where Ilford North MP Lee Scott wished the families “long life”. Pressed by MP Mike Freer on what the Foreign Office meant when it spoke of the need for “proportionality” on the ground, Middle East minister Hugh Robertson said: “Let me be absolutely clear about this: it is utterly unacceptable that people in the Gaza Strip fire missiles at Israeli citizens. The correct response to the kidnapping and murder of three teenagers is to find the perpetrators and to bring them to justice. We expect exactly the same response in that part of the world as we would find here.”
On Wednesday night, some 600 people carrying Israeli flags gathered outside the Israeli embassy in London for a hastily-organised vigil at which candles were lit in memory of the youngsters.
Organised by a host of communal groups including the Jewish Leadership Council, Board of Deputies, UJIA and Zionist Federation, the crowds were addressed by Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub, who said: “Even in a region where violence is so prevalent, even in a country where our history is filled with so many tragedies, we are shocked. Shocked by those who could do this deed, shocked by those who could defend it, celebrate it. “But even as we are shocked, we are proud. Proud of the dignity and nobility of these three families, selected by terrorists because they were ordinary Israelis, but who have shown through their courage and sensitivity how extraordinary they are.”
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis will tonight lead a community-wide session of learning in their memory.
He told the vigil: “Our challenge is to transform hatred into love and to show that only unity and harmony among different peoples can take us forward in a meaningful and constructive way. In the midst of deep grief, may God guide us along the route of hope, to the stability and security which will underpin the right of innocent men, women and children, to live their lives in peace.”
The Reform Movement’s Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner also movingly addressed the crowd.
Meanwhile, the CST has called on the community to be vigilant, warning: “The situation may escalate further, bringing a heightened risk of anti-Semitic incidents in the UK. All Jewish communal venues and events should ensure that security procedures are rigorously followed at this time.”
• Jewish News and the Zionist Federation are compiling books for the three families with messages from the community. You can email your message to email@example.com