Two Israeli boys, hiking at the edge of the Judean desert, were bludgeoned to death Wednesday by Palestinian vigilantes, according to police. Another week, it seems, another brutal killing of a child in the Middle East conflict.
The latest victims were 13-year-old Yaakov Mandel, a dual American-Israeli citizen whose family emigrated to an Israeli settlement several years ago, and 14-year-old Yosef Ishran. Their bodies were found in a cave near the area where they had been hiking while playing hooky. According to police reports, the boys' bodies were so badly mutilated that one could only be identified by his fingerprints. The Associated Press reports that the killers "dipped their hands in the teenagers' blood" and smeared them across the walls of the cave -- an almost biblical act of cruelty.
Police believe Palestinians killed the children, whom they happened upon in a chance encounter, and they have arrested a dozen suspects.
Of course, the vast majority of the children killed in the Middle East conflict have been Palestinian. In the eight months since the start of this latest intifada, which began last September following now-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount, the body count has escalated so much that authorities disagree over the numbers. Reuters says 501 have died, including 409 Palestinians, 79 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs. The Ramallah-based Health Development Information and Policy Institute puts the Palestinian figure at 466 and says 152 -- or roughly a third of those killed -- were children 18 or under. The Israelis, meanwhile, have reported the deaths of 10 victims 18 or under, though three of them were soldiers in the Israeli army.
However the standoff between Israelis and Palestinians is finally resolved, the murder of children will have provided the most gripping images, like the napalm children of Vietnam or the martyred child soldiers of Iran.
First came the awful image of 11-year-old Mohammad al-Dirrah, whose last moments in life were captured by a photographer as his father tried to shield him from a spray of bullets. Later, the world was outraged by the shooting death by police of Israeli-Arab student activist Asel Asleh, who was a member of Seeds for Peace, an organization that brings together Arab and Israeli youth. And again by the sniper fire death of 10-month-old Israeli infant Shalvehet Pass in March.
Then, just a day before the killings of Mandel and Ishran, a 4-month-old Palestinian girl, Iman Hiju, died in her mother's arms as they were struck by an Israeli tank shell.
The high death toll among Palestinian children can be explained partly by the fact that the population is young overall -- 65 percent of those living in the territories are under 18. It's also true that some Palestinians deliberately send their children into the streets as "martyrs" to cast stones at Israeli soldiers, as Salon Middle East correspondent Flore de Préneuf reported last fall in "The Children's War." Reports have circulated widely that Arafat pays as much as $2,000 to Palestinian parents whose children become martyrs to the intifada, with Iraq's Saddam Hussein sweetening the deal with checks for $10,000. In fact, a commercial that aired recently on Palestinian television uses actors to recreate the death of Mohammad al-Dirrah. The spot shows al-Dirrah in heaven and asks children to drop their toys and pick up stones instead. "Follow him," the ad urges.
But Israeli groups know their own child-martyrs have P.R. value too, and have used photos of children and young parents killed in the conflict to raise funds and support. Sharon was quick to condemn the most recent killings, accusing the Palestinian Authority of "venomous incitement to murder against Israelis and Jews." (So grotesque was the murder that Palestinian official Saeb Erekat also tried to distance his government from it. "Killing civilians is a crime, whether on the Palestinian or Israeli side," he said.)
Shaken by the news, the Israelis launched one of the biggest attacks yet on the Palestinian Authority Thursday. The latest bombardment followed the deaths of two Romanians killed by a bomb while repairing an Israeli fence along the border with the Gaza Strip. The Israelis showered Arafat's offices with missiles and injured 13.
But this murder also brings the war to America -- if not literally, then at least figuratively. Mandel lived for a while in Silver Spring, Md., and his American family is devastated. "Our hearts are broken. It's a nightmare," Mandel's aunt, a resident of Nassau County, N.Y., told the New York Times. But on both sides in the Middle East, hearts have hardened so much that these killings inspire movement toward revenge, not peace.