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Using Tragedy to Change the Narrative

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JACK GUEZ via Getty Images

When the Presbyterian Church (USA) made the unprecedented decision to divest from three corporations linked with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, it marked the first time that a large entity within the United States actively divested millions from those that contribute to the violence and repression against Palestinians. As the Huffington Post reported, they chose Motorola Solutions because the Israeli Defense Force purchases their communication technologies, Caterpillar because its bulldozers have been used to demolish Palestinian homes, and Hewlett-Packard because the Israeli Navy uses its products at checkpoints and to coordinate the blockade of the Gaza Strip. In total, the Presbyterian Church divested $21 million from these three specific companies. While many attempted to downplay this historic move, the world -- including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- took notice. And unlike movements from around the world, this push came from within Israel's biggest ally, the United States. In an effort to counteract this growing rallying cry for Palestinian self-governance and a two-state solution, Netanyahu is now using the tragic death of teenagers to shift the narrative and further reign terror on a minority already living in subjugation. Too bad for him, the world is once again watching.

The notion of peace in the Middle East has taken another unfortunate, downward spiral over the last few weeks. When Israeli officials announced on Monday that the bodies of three missing teenagers, Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar, were discovered, both Israelis and Palestinians were mortified, disgusted, saddened and simultaneously fearful of what may transpire next. Contrary to what is often depicted in the media, most Israelis are against the creation of further settlements and are in favor of a two-state solution just as most people around the world are. Many residents of Israel -- I would argue the majority -- do not support their government's tactics of aggression, just as many in the United States do not support our aggression in other sovereign countries (i.e., Iraq circa 2003). But instead of urging calm at such a volatile moment, and instead of releasing facts from an investigation into the deaths of these three innocent boys, Netanyahu doubled down on his heated rhetoric and fulfilled people's worst fears from all sides: an increase in hostility.

"Whoever was involved in the kidnapping and the murder will bear the consequences," said Netanyahu earlier this week. "We will neither rest nor slacken until we reach the last of them. And it does not matter where they will try to hide." What followed was the kind of indiscriminate, blanketed brutal force that has become synonymous with Israel's behavior, and that often keeps Palestinians up at night. Israeli troops conducted countess raids, and arrested and detained hundreds. Israeli jets launched dozens of airstrikes, hitting at least 34 locations the very next morning before dawn. And according to the Washington Post, the United Nations' aid agency in East Jerusalem says that at least seven Palestinians were killed and almost 200 wounded between June 13 and July 1 in the search for the alleged perpetrators. Authorities and medical workers in Gaza place the figure even higher.

Without releasing specific details from the investigation, Netanyahu placed blame for the deaths of the three young boys squarely on Hamas. Even when pressed for proof, he and other Israeli leaders simply said that the evidence exists and they were justified to take action. That action has been continuous airstrikes and raids which renewed later in the week, and are taking place even as I write this piece. Contrast that with Netanyahu's reaction to the death of a Palestinian teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who many believe was killed in a revenge attack. While the Prime Minister condemned the murder and called it "reprehensible", he also told people not to jump to conclusions and stated that an investigation would have to be conducted before we could speculate on the perpetrators. He pushed for restraint, but somehow failed to show restraint when ordering airstrikes and raids in Gaza. Do we really believe that innocents have not been killed in that process? Imagine if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ordered airstrikes into Israel in order to catch the culprits behind Khdeir's death? Do we really think that would fly?

The murder of the three Israeli teenagers is unconscionable, horrific and beyond tragic, just as is the murder of the Palestinian teenager. All should be equally condemned. But when the death of children is used to justify further bloodshed, one must question the motives of those taking such actions. For years, nations around the world have been pushing back against Israel's treatment of Palestinians. As I pointed out in a Huffington Post piece in 2011, Palestinians are subjected to daily profiling, second-class status, segregation, routine checkpoints, diminished opportunities, acts of brutal force and more that resemble nuances of apartheid South Africa. And it is this reality that leaves Israel vulnerable to charges of crimes against humanity from the International Criminal Court if Palestinians are able to achieve statehood. That scenario scares many.

Just as the global anti-apartheid movement targeted businesses directly contributing to the problem in South Africa, a modern global movement is afoot to push for divestment from those businesses that contribute to the occupation of Palestinians. And for the first time, a major American organization -- a 1.76 million member Church -- has chosen to divest millions of dollars, citing humanitarian reasons as the basis for their decision. Could this be a signal of future divestment movements here at home, similar to the divestment push against apartheid South Africa? Quite possibly. If anyone thinks the Presbyterian Church's decision is miniscule, they are only kidding themselves. There's a reason why many people and organizations descended in Detroit at the Church's General Assembly. And there's a reason why Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism addressed the Presbyterians twice on the assembly floor against divesting, and even offered to set up a meeting for Church leaders with Netanyahu if they voted the measure down, as the Huffington Post reported.

Choosing to divest, or highlighting oppressive acts sanctioned by a government are not anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish in the slightest. The majority of those pushing for an end to the settlements and the creation of a two-state solution -- as the U.S. is -- support two equally autonomous nations. Until the inhumane treatment of Palestinians is ended, Netanyahu cannot play the victim no matter how hard he may try to spin a situation -- even when he disgustingly uses the deaths of innocent teenagers to do so.