Murders become symbols

I was in an airport hotel in Kuala Lumpur when I heard that the three kidnapped Israeli boys - let us always name them - Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Sha'ar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16 – had been found murdered.

There are the photographs of them smiling (how can any young person think they are anything other than beautiful?), and then the pictures of a burnt-out car and a dusty roadside, then their families at the funeral.

On social media – and I follow people from all backgrounds – so many fell almost immediately into their pre-ordained roles. Why such a fuss over these three when so little attention has been paid to the deaths of Palestinian children? The Israelis have "killed the equivalent of one Palestinian child every THREE days. 1,518 in total", tweeted the commentator Mehdi Hassan. Why no live coverage of their funerals, he demanded. Hassan's sentiments were commonly expressed by people one might describe as being active in the pro-Palestinian cause.

For others it was clear who had done it – Hamas – and clear that Hamas must be struck at again, in whatever way Hamas gets to be struck at. A car destroyed by a missile on a Gaza street, perhaps. Maybe more. Only action would do: swift, firm, violent and retributional action. A settlement on the West Bank should be named after them, said an Israeli minister.

Now we have no hope and no progress. We have camps, only.

And so the deaths were instrumentalised instantly. The three boys stopped being three dead boys and became three symbols. The families stopped being themselves and became either a focus of someone else's determination to punish somebody else, or an example of the attention the wicked West never gives to Palestinian suffering.

As I write this the news is coming in that the body of a Palestinian boy, who was also kidnapped, has been found in Jerusalem. His name was Mohammed Abu Khudair. Within minutes rioters were making his death (and therefore his short life) symbolic too.

As far as we can tell the killers of the three Jewish boys were a pair of criminal opportunists from a troublesome Hebron clan; guys who were quickly identified by Palestinians themselves. Motivated by hate, or avarice or both, and almost certainly seeing in three Jewish boys the loathed "other", they had turned up in their car at the wrongest time.

In a normal place, what would happen is that the murderers of both the Jewish boys and the Palestinian boy would be pursued, caught, tried and sentenced. If anyone had helped them they too would be subject to the law. We could think about them as people. There wouldn't be house demolitions, threats of collective punishment, street riots or people weaselly half-justifying the murders as being the product of legitimate anger. We would mourn the dead, seek justice for their families, think about better ways to protect our young.

Twenty years ago I was at the BBC when Panorama got its scoop about the Oslo peace process. My then colleague, Jane Corbyn, told the almost incredible story of how the deal was brokered. What followed was a period of hope and no little progress - the only hope and almost the only progress in my life time – but always precarious, always vulnerable to a loss of nerve, courage or the machinations of those who, whatever they say, do not believe in peace, because they don't see "their" boys as being quite as real as "our" boys.

Now we have no hope. We have no progress. We have camps only. Camps don't care about a Gilad, or a Naftali or an Eyal. Or an Iqab or a Billal. They care about winning and the people become mere adjuncts to the propaganda battle. It is a terrible crime to kidnap and murder three boys, but it is also immoral to use such murders to further an argument.

Last updated: 1:28pm, July 3 2014