Jerusalem Report

The Price Gets Higher

West Bank settler vandalism against Palestinians has crossed over into Israel proper.

price tag attack on mosque [file]
Photo by: ISSAM RIMAWI /Flash 90
Late one night, just after the Rosh Hashana New Year holiday, vandals broke into the small Beduin village of Tuba- Zangariyya, in Israel’s northern Galilee region, torching the mosque and reducing dozens of copies of the Koran to ashes.

Splashed on the walls in black letters were the words “price tag” (tag mehir in Hebrew), the calling card left by extremist Jewish settlers who say they are responding to actions taken by the government against settlers in the West Bank. The name “Palmer” was also spray-painted, an apparent reference to Asher Palmer, a 25-year-old Jewish settler who was killed, together with his infant son, when rocks were thrown, probably by Palestinians, at their car.

Suspected Jewish vandals have committed more than 600 attacks against Palestinians and their property in the West Bank in the past five years, according to sources in the Israel Police. In several dozens of these incidents, the vandals have left their telltale “price tag” graffiti; four mosques have been vandalized in the West Bank since the beginning of 2011. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Jewish settler attacks on Palestinian property in the West Bank have risen by 57 percent so far this year compared to last year.

The attack in Tuba-Zangariyya marked the first attack against a mosque in Israel, but not the first time that the “price tag” signature has crossed the Green Line, which demarcates the West Bank from Israel proper. Weeks earlier, vandals painted “price tag” threats on the walls of an apartment building where a Peace Now activist involved in monitoring settlement expansion lives. And in mid-September, price tag vandals infiltrated an IDF base near Ramallah, damaging 13 vehicles and cutting electrical cables.

Copycat, although apparently unrelated, acts followed the torching of the mosque. Vandals spray-painted the same graffiti in a Muslim cemetery in Jaffa a few days later, but police announced that, due to other evidence at the scene, they are doubtful that the vandals are Jewish extremists. And on October 14, Shvuel Schijveschuurder, whose parents and three siblings were murdered in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem 10 years ago, was apprehended as he spray-painted “price tag” and “free Yigal Amir” [the assassin of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin] on the Tel Aviv memorial marking the spot where Rabin was murdered; Schijveschuurder told police he was protesting the release of Palestinian prisoners in the swap deal for Gilad Shalit.

To date, no one has been ever been charged for “price tag” crimes. Israel police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld initially confirmed to The Jerusalem Report that “several suspects had been arrested;” at least one of them was reported to be a resident of a settlement in the territories, but, due to the gag order imposed by the courts at the police’s request, no further details were available for publication. Subsequently, the courts ordered the release of at least one suspect, ruling that there was not enough evidence to convict the man.

But even if the most recent attacks are not the result of the “usual price-tag suspects,” the fact that no one has ever been charged, let alone convicted, for any of these hundreds of crimes, leaving the perpetrators to act with impunity, is raising concerns among socialrights activists, politicians, and settlers alike. And as the violence escalates, the tepid condemnations and tacit sympathy proffered by some religious and political leaders may be encouraging the attackers.

The condemnations of the arson attack on the mosque in Tuba- Zangariyya came quickly.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the attack “horrifying.” President Shimon Peres rushed to the scene, accompanied by Chief Rabbis Shlomo Amar and Yona Metzger. He declared that the attack was “anti-religion, anti-Judaism and anti-morality,” adding, “We will not rest until such incidents are eradicated from the Land of Israel.”

Most leaders of the settlement movement denounced the act. Knesset Member Uri Ariel, from the far-right National Union Party and a former secretary general of the Judea and Samaria (Yesha) Council, a settler umbrella group, tells The Report, “This was an ugly and evil act. These are the tactics used by the enemies of the Jews in pogroms throughout history. There can be no forgiveness for such hatred.”

Emily Amrousi, publicist, author, and former spokeswoman for the Yesha Council, tells The Report, “These people are not of our camp. They are a tiny minority of crazy young criminals and they should be punished accordingly. They are doing as much damage to our cause as they are to the Arabs.”

But other statements were less clear-cut.

“We have to make very sure that the people who committed these attacks are even from the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria,” says Eve Harow, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, near Jerusalem, and hosts a radio show on Arutz 7, the settler radio station. “There have been times when it’s all been set up by Arabs or leftists,” she tells The Report.

The attacks are based, in the logic of their perpetrators, on maintaining a “balance of terror,” in which they respond to every action taken by the State of Israel against the settlers or settlements with an immediate, violent reaction against the Palestinians.

If the “price” is high enough, they reason, it will pressure the Israeli government not to demolish any more Jewish homes in the West Bank, not to restrict the movement of any settlers, and not to offer any concessions to the Palestinians, such as taking down checkpoints or opening roads.

The “price-tag attacks” first began to appear after Israel’s evacuation of the Jewish settlements in Gaza in 2005. Some of the young settlers, many from unauthorized outposts, believed there had not been enough opposition to what they call the “expulsion” from Gush Katif. They vowed that from then on, Palestinians would pay a price every time the government acted against settlements in an attempt to deter the government from demolishing Jewish homes as they did in Gush Katif and the next year in the outpost of Amona.

And indeed, the attack on the mosque in Tuba- Zangariyya followed the demolition of three homes in Migron, an illegal outpost in the West Bank, in early September; the demolitions were carried out by the IDF in response to an order by the Supreme Court, which has ordered that the entire settlement be evacuated by April 2012, because it was established on privately-owned Palestinian land.

Some Israelis say that the attacks are an expression of revenge because the settlers feel that the government is not doing enough to protect them. The killing of five members of the Fogel family, including a three-month-old infant, as they slept in their beds in the settlement of Itamar in March 2011, by two Palestinians from a nearby village, has made many settlers and their sympathizers angry.

“I don’t agree with these ‘price tag’ activities,” Sheera Shmuel, a 28-year-old kindergarten teacher from the settlement city of Ariel in the West Bank, tells The Report. “But after the murders of the Fogels, we are all afraid. At least these boys who are doing the ‘price tag’ activities are trying to protect Jewish lives.”

Others say they fear the Netanyahu government is getting ready for a withdrawal from the West Bank. Along with the Palestinian push for statehood at the United Nations, the US Administration is pushing hard for Israel and the Palestinians to resume peace talks. Any peace agreement would mean an Israeli withdrawal from the most of the West Bank and the dismantling of settlements there.

“We are doing everything we can to establish new outposts and expand the ones we already have,” says Meir Bretler, who lives in Adei Ad, an illegal outpost near the settlement of Shilo in the northern West Bank and has been active in building new illegal outposts, “Netanyahu has betrayed his values and those of the Likud, and it’s time to overthrow him. We’re working on it,” he tells The Report enigmatically.

David Wilder, spokesman for the 90-family Jewish community living in Hebron, tells The Report that the Israeli decision in 2005 to dismantle the settlements in Gaza – which settlers refer to as “the expulsion” and the rest of the country calls “disengagement” – has had a strong impact on the settler community and especially on its youth.

“It wasn’t an earthquake – it was a tsunami,” Wilder explains. “Whole families fell apart. Many kids…still have psychological problems.”

He says the demolition of the three homes in Migron brought many of these feelings to the surface again and sparked fears that the government intends to destroy many settlements. “I think the kids are extremely frustrated with the government policy today and it’s an outlet,” Wilder continues. “I don’t agree with everything that’s being done but I understand where this is coming from.”

But author Micha Regev, a former settler activist who is now a sharp critic of the settlement movement, tells The Report that the “price tag” activities are motivated by a “dangerous theology and by blind hatred” that was exacerbated, but not created, by the disengagement. Regev has recently published (in Hebrew) his analysis of this theology, entitled “The Intoxication of Redemption.”

“These people, guided by their extremist rabbis, detest all Arabs, because they believe that by living here, Arabs are contaminating the land that belongs to the Jewish people. And they also believe that the age of redemption, when the Jewish people will reign over the entire Land of Israel, is close,” he explains.

“To hasten the redemption, they believe that they must inflame the situation so that there will be a great religious war between the Arabs and the Jews. And God, they believe, will help the Jews and all the Arabs will be expelled from the land. These extremists may be a minority, but they are endangering the entire State of Israel,” Regev warns. “‘Price tag’ is just one example of how dangerous they are.”

Any order for a large-scale evacuation of settlements, Regev says, would be met by a series of attacks on mosques and Arab property that could “cause the entire Muslim world to unite against us.”

Most leaders of the settlement movement have clearly attempted to distance themselves from these activities and their perpetrators. “The people who attacked the mosque did not do that in my name. They do not represent me or the Zionist settlement enterprise,” Ariel tells The Report.

And Amrousi adds, “The fact that you ask me, a resident of Judea and Samaria and a former spokeswoman for the settlement movement, to denounce their activities implies that they are somehow connected to me. These people are not part of us,” she says forcefully. “There is a small percentage of crazies and criminals in every society. You don’t ask representatives of the left to denounce every stupid or criminal thing that is supposedly done in their name – so why are we settlers supposed to be on the defensive? Isn’t it obvious that I think this is criminal behavior that should be punished to the full extent of the law?”

But Yariv Oppenheimer, secretary general of the left-wing Peace Now group, says that the “price tag” perpetrators are an inherent part of the broader settlement movement.

“The ‘price tag’ phenomenon is just one part of a systemic problem,” he tells The Report.

“When the settlement movement mounts a frontal attack on the Supreme Court, when officials refer to the court as ‘a branch of [the left-wing party] Meretz,’ when they show complete disdain for non-Jews – what do they think will happen? The settlers respect the institutions of the state and the law only when it suits them, and the “price tag” youth are just one expression of the contempt they feel for democracy and universal values.”

Attention has been focused on the rabbis who support and encourage the “hill top youth” and their illegal activities, including the “price tag” attacks. Among these rabbis are Rabbi Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba near Hebron and two rabbis, Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur, of the Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva in Nablus, who co-authored “Torat Hamelekh,” a book, which details the religious circumstances in which it is permissible to kill non- Jews.

All three, along with several other rabbis, have been detained for questioning related to incitement to violence and hatred, but none have been charged.

The rabbis, says Regev, provide the allimportant religious sanction for the crimes.

“These youths do not respect or obey the law, because they believe they are above human law. But they do believe in religious law, and they seek religious justification for what they are doing. These extremist rabbis give it to them.”

Although many rabbis have condemned the attacks, they have done so softly and weakly. Furthermore, they have not condemned the rabbis who encourage them, Regev accuses. “The extent to which the messianic belief in redemption is part of the everyday theology of even so-called normative rabbis cannot be underestimated. They may not agree with some of the actions – mostly because they think it does not serve their public image or their cause – but they do agree with the theology behind it, which holds that the Arabs must be expelled from the Land of Israel, and that they must make every effort to provoke a religious war.”

Prof. Aviad Hacohen, dean of the Sha’arei Mishpat College of Law in Hod Hasharon, says that the rabbis should make their voices heard much more forcefully. “Some rabbis are afraid because they do not want to confront their own congregations. Others, I am sorry to say, may believe that ‘it’s not so terrible’ if there are extremists on the fringes of the settlement movement. As an observant Jew, this troubles me even more, because everything that these ‘price tag’ vandals are doing contradicts our basic Jewish values.”

Israel Police spokesman Rosenfeld tells The Report that there are no specific statistics on “price tag” attacks and that “each incident is investigated separately.”

Yossi Melman, a columnist at the left-wing “Haaretz” daily and an expert on intelligence, tells The Report that the security forces must do more to arrest the perpetrators of “price tag” attacks.

Some experts have noted that a growing percentage of mid- and high-ranking military officers come from settlements in the West Bank and may be loath to confront members of their tightly-knit communities, even if they oppose their actions. And the perpetrators of the “price tag” attacks are a shadowy group. According to media reports, the security forces believe they are carried out by small, well-organized and highly-compartmentalized cells and, in some cases, by individuals acting of their own accord. Most of the perpetrators are believed to be part of the so-called “hilltop youth,” who live in unauthorized outposts in the West Bank.

Yet Melman insists, “The government knows the hotbeds where the seeds of terrorism are growing. They must plant agents; they must penetrate these groups like they penetrate Arab groups.”

This takes time, Melman acknowledges, but the “failure to do so is part of a broader failure of the government to deal with Jewish violence. Even those few who are brought to trial are treated much more leniently than Arabs who perpetrate violence.”

Hacohen warns that the failure of the security forces to apprehend the criminals creates an impression of discrimination between Palestinians who commit crimes and Jews who commit similar crimes. “That may not be the intent of the authorities,” Hacohen tells The Report. “But even the appearance of such discrimination is damaging to the public’s trust in the justice system and to the democratic foundations of the state.”

Furthermore, he adds, “When the authorities do not stop them, these youths become encouraged and believe that they can do anything they want.”

But Rosenfeld rejects charges that the police are not doing enough to stop the attacks.

“The Israel Police set up a special task force to deal with all of the incidents that have taken place since the demolitions in Migron,” he asserts.

Amrousi contends that the security forces’ failure to deal with the problem may be “politically motivated. these are a bunch of marginal youths who use the web and boast about their activities. it’s inconceivable that the shin Bet (Israel security agency) can’t put their hands on them. Maybe the authorities don’t want to catch them because they know that they are damaging the settlement movement by ruining our image in the eyes of the Israeli public. Maybe, since the government is giving in to pressure to dismantle settlements, this suits them just fine.”

According to Hacohen, these conspiracy theories are nothing less than science fiction.

I think that it probably is very difficult for the police to put their hands on these youths – and even more difficult to collect evidence that will be admissible in court. and also take into account that most of these kids have been investigated at least once or twice – they’re savvy and know how to handle themselves. But that doesn’t mean that the police should be absolved from putting an end to these activities.”

Writing in the 1990s, the late professor of political science, Ehud Sprinzak, who taught at the Hebrew University and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, warned that Israel was developing a culture of illegalism, in which illegal acts committed in the name of the “collective good” are tolerated and even admired.

And indeed, at least some of the violent activities are being provided with tacit, if not overt, support. Writing in a newsletter, “the small World,” which is handed out in synagogues throughout the country, a copy of which was brought to The Report, Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely revealed that she and other members of the “national camp” have sent a “warning letter to the prime minister.

We have made it clear that a series of legal arrangements are necessary with regard to the outposts.”

Referring to the issue of privately-owned land, which formed the basis for the court ruling on the demolitions in Migron, Hotovely added, “in cases where there is real proof of ownership of the land, [the government] must find a fair alternative to compensate the owners,” rather than dismantling the settlement.

“[the demolitions in] Migron were just the opening volley… in a planned campaign to destroy the outposts that have been built on ‘private land,’” Hotovely wrote. “it is important that the prime minister knows that the members of his coalition will not remain loyal to a government that takes actions against Jews.”

And while she acknowledged that “price tag” actions are “not the way,” she emphasized that “pressure should be applied on the government and the man who stands at its head.”

More directly, in response to Schijveschuurder’s attempts to deface the Rabin memorial, MK Michael Ben-Ari, of the National Union Party, issued a statement in which he writes that “the young man was expressing, in a very gentle way, the rage that the victims of terror feel.”

The pressure seems to be working. in a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office in mid-October, Netanyahu announced that he had “decided to form a committee that would examine policies and operational methods concerning construction in the West Bank, the status of which is still uncertain” and that he had instructed justice Minister Yaakov Neeman to set up a task force to explore ways to legalize houses in the settlements that were built on private Palestinian land.

MK Zehava Galon of Meretz tells The Report that attorney general Yehuda Weinstein must make it clear to the government that there is no way to legalize the theft of Palestinian land. “theft is a criminal offense,” she declares. “Netanyahu is giving into pressure from his right-wing flank, at the expense of democracy and rule of law.”

Hacohen says that the establishment of the committee is not, by itself, a threat to democracy. “As a legal scholar, I am always in favor of examinations of alternatives. But this task force is politically, and not legally, motivated, and that is what concerns me.”

Furthermore, he says, he is concerned about the public climate and its potential effect on the judicial system. “Legal and law enforcement officials cannot help but be influenced by what is happening around them. as the violence grows, legal authorities may become afraid of doing their jobs and enforcing the law.”

The attack in Tuba-Zangariyya was followed by rioting by villagers and several attempts at desecrating Jewish cemeteries in the area. this brought in its wake an upsurge in anti-Arab feeling.

Melman warns that if the “price tag” violence continues, it could spark a religious war between Judaism and Islam.”

Agreeing with Regev’s analysis, he says, “they want to provoke and create a chain of events of action and reaction. We already have so many levels of conflict between us and the Palestinians – historical, political, economic and social – the last thing we need is a religious conflict.”


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