Who is paying the price?

Inside the minds of the 'price-taggers'.

"Price-taggers" 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
"Price-taggers" 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Numerous instances of arson, vandalism and threats against both Palestinian and left-wing targets have been recorded in the past months, marking a sharp increase in violence that can be widely attributed to the radical fringe of the settlement movement in the West Bank. While many of these so-called “price tag” attacks are widely seen as originating with the residents of various unauthorized outposts and such hotspots as the settlement of Yitzhar, the exact nature and scope of the threat has been somewhat amorphous, as seen by the dearth of convictions in comparison to the actual number of recorded incidents.
It was against this backdrop that The Jerusalem Post contacted several alleged leaders of the price tag or “areivut hadadit” (mutual guarantee) movement – as well as both admitted and accused participants in price-tag operations – in order to understand the factors leading Israelis to engage in these activities. Following reports of groups unconnected to the settlement movement or their ideology, including Arabs and soccer hooligans, using the price tag brand as cover for their own criminal activities, the Post also sought to uncover the parties that are really behind the violence. Is the pricetag phenomenon exclusively ideological or is indeed, as critics contend, a trend inextricably bound to the settlers?
Rabbi Yosef Elitzur, a senior lecturer at the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva in Yitzhar and a co-author of the controversial book Torat Hamelech [the King’s Torah], is widely credited by critics as one of the originators of the price tag phenomenon. In essence, price tag is seen by its proponents as a way of preventing security services from razing unauthorized hilltop outposts in Judea and Samaria by making the accompanying “price” too high to bear.
Originally conceived as a diffuse network of mutually-supportive settlers, price tag was meant to mobilize protests and road closings in one area in order to distract police and Israel Defense Forces personnel from evacuating settlements in another.
However, the trend took a radically different direction after Elitzur’s article, entitled ”The Mutual Guarantee Strategy,” was published on the Yitzharbased website “The Jewish Voice” at the end of 2009.
In the article, Elitzur explained that “acts of mutual guarantee coordinated between members of all the settlements take the air out of the government’s dreams... we are all together and there is no ‘divide and conquer.’” In this article – a roadmap for a policy of violence that would bring worldwide attention to the extreme fringes of Israeli society – Elitzur laid out a new and radically different sort of price tag.
Attempting to whip up opposition against the building freeze that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had just announced, Elitzur stated that he and his followers “do not discriminate: if the Jews don’t have quiet, the Arabs won’t have quiet. If the Arabs win because of violence against Jews, the Jews will win by violence against Arabs.”
A slim man with a blond beard, flowing side-locks and thinning hair, Elitzur looks nothing like the burly bruiser one might expect of a man with such a philosophy. Sitting behind a table in a classroom in the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva beside academy head Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, Elitzur presents the image of a shy, retiring and soft-spoken scholar. In fact, it is unclear whether or not he has taken an active role in price-tag attacks himself or whether he has just used his position at the yeshiva to spread the ideology that has led others to take direct action.
THE DAY of my first meeting with Elitzur several months ago, as I rode in the car of a settler up the dusty path leading to the mountain-top town of Yitzhar near Nablus, I watched Palestinian Authority firefighters and Israeli border-patrol officers battle roadside blazes said to have been ignited by local youth. The young men were protesting the carjacking of a Jewish woman by Arab villagers the day before and had wreaked their vengeance on their neighbors’ olive groves.
The inferno I witnessed is representative of a brand of extremism that is embraced by certain elements in Yitzhar and that, while quietly endorsed by some, has caused considerable embarrassment for the sizable moderate factions of Israel’s settlement enterprise in the West Bank.
In a follow-up telephone conversation with the Post this week, Elitzur began to open up about what leads a settler to engage in price-tag violence.
There is little doubt in his mind, he said, that the closure of his yeshiva is directly connected with the publication of his book. In Torat Hamelech, Elitzur and co-author Shapira explain the circumstances in which gentile babies, civilians and even, by implication, Israeli leftists may be killed in a time of war. Widely condemned both by ultra-Orthodox and national-religious rabbis, the publication of the tome led to accusations of incitement to be leveled against Elitzur by the state prosecutor’s office.
Citing the involvement of the institution’s students in “violent activities against Palestinians and security forces,” in an official letter obtained by the Post, Israel’s Ministry of Education ordered the closure of an elementary school that operates in the same building as Od Yosef Chai, as well as cutting off funding for the yeshiva itself.
Asked about the alleged connection, Elitzur explained that he thinks that “the education ministry and the defense ministry are distorting the reality. There is a very big population here that feels that it is being mistreated.” The “natural consequence” to this feeling of mistreatment among Israelis around the country, he stated emphatically, is “anarchy,” which he said he opposes.
DESPITE THE fact that an 88 percent majority of Israelis, cutting across all sectors, opposes price-tag operations, there is a feeling of betrayal among many in the national camp over what they see as a policy of sweeping Palestinian terrorism against Jews under the rug.
According to the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), in October 2011 there were 30 fire-bomb attacks against Jewish targets in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Furthermore, Samaria regional spokesman David Ha’ivri pointed out that Jewish graves on the Mount of Olives are frequently desecrated and both Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus and the tomb of Eliezer the High Priest in the Arab village of Awarta are regularly vandalized.
While condemning recent cases of arson against mosques, Ha’ivri was quick to point out that no settlers have been convicted and that the participation of settlers in such activities has not been proven.
It is impossible to disprove Jewish participation in some attacks given the fact that the very concept of price tag originated in a West Bank yeshiva. However, some recent incidents have provided evidence that not every attack has ideological origins. Some attacks may merely be criminal activities using price-tag graffiti as a cover.
One recent attack on a Jaffa cemetery, in which the phrase “price tag” was found scrawled in paint, was later found to have been linked to Maccabi Haifa sports fans, according to police.
In another recent incident in Jaffa, members of a local Muslim family were arrested on suspicion of planning to bomb a local mosque and kill a senior cleric as part of a feud. The police announced that those arrested had planned to use price tag as a convenient cover for their activities, as any settlers blaming Arabs for a price-tag attack would seem paranoid.
Despite widespread opposition, 9% of Israelis have expressed their support of price-tag attacks, reinforcing the contention that only a radical fringe actually engages in such activities.
Denounced by such settlement leaders as Yesha Council head Dani Dayan, price-tag attacks are most likely undertaken by those who are not inclined to listen to authority in the first case, Ha’ivri stated.
Speaking to the Post during a ceremony in the settlement of Kfar Tapuach thanking foreign volunteers for their contributions to the settlements, Ha’ivri explained that a settler who would engage in violence is the West Bank analogue of a Tel-Avivian who would engage in crime and drugs as a form of rebellion.
It is important to note, Ha’ivri stated, that Palestinian violence is aimed at killing Jews, while Jewish violence affiliated with the price-tag label, while contemptible, has not resulted in any deaths.
Asked if his office is engaged in any efforts to prevent such activities, Ha’ivri explained that the official settlement leadership and major rabbis have already condemned anti-Palestinian violence and that there is not much more that can be done. There are criminals in every sector of society, he said.
THIS CONTENTION was reinforced by representatives of both Peace Now and B’Tselem, left-wing non-governmental organizations that monitor and report on violence against Palestinian civilians.
Based on interviews with several settlement leaders and alleged participants in price-tag activities, it seems that rather than being led by a particular organization, price tag is perpetrated by a random collection of individuals organized into small and unconnected cells that participate in activities on an ad-hoc basis, without any real structure.
It is quite possible that rather than directly participating in violent activities themselves, fringe religious leaders such as Elitzur and Shapira are only the ideological catalyst for disaffected and angry teens to engage in independent action. It must be stressed, however, that the reticence of people involved in the phenomenon to be interviewed about their alleged participation means that a proper overview of the structure of price tag is impossible.
One alleged participant described being arrested on suspicion of taking part in a case of arson against a mosque. He stated that the police released him almost immediately, which is par for the course in cases like this, despite the recent establishment of a special police task force to deal with Jewish terrorism. The authorities knew that he was unconnected, he said, and attempted to convince him to give them names of actual participants. He explained that the police frequently pick up the same suspects but are unable to prove their connection to any specific actions.
Hagit Ofran, Peace Now’s Settlement Watch director and the victim of a recent price-tag attack herself, in the form of threats against her life – and the term “price tag” as well as the names of several settlements spray painted outside her apartment – largely agreed with Ha’ivri’s assertion that any participation in violence is against the will of the official settlement bodies. The government, she Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for B’Tselem, stated that her organization provides cameras to Palestinian villagers in an effort to catch settlers perpetrating acts of violence, as existing law-enforcement mechanisms have proved insufficient.
According to Michaeli, Israeli settlers in the West Bank are subject to the same legal system as those inside pre-1967 Israel, making it very hard to secure convictions. Palestinians, however, are subject to military law, making it much easier for law-enforcement officers to violate a suspect’s rights in the pursuit of a confession. The same legal protections enjoyed by Israelis, she stated, must be extended to Palestinians.
While there is a broad consensus that the participants in price-tag activities are part of a small radical fringe, not all such incidents can be traced to extremists or criminal elements. As Elitzur stated, some regular Israelis are taking action based on the perception that the government is not looking out for their interests.
Meir Schijveschuurder, a Dutch immigrant and a victim or terror, lost both parents and three siblings in the 2001 suicide bombing of the Sbarro pizza shop in downtown Jerusalem. After 10 years of fighting with Israeli authorities over insurance payments, having his remaining siblings taken away from him several times by social services and finally finding out that the terrorist that aided the suicide bomber that killed his family was being freed by the Netanyahu administration in exchange for the release of captive IDF serviceman Gilad Schalit, Schijveschuurder snapped. Indeed, he recently took a can of spray paint, defaced the Tel Aviv memorial to slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and wrote “price tag” in large letters for all to see, for which he was subsequently arrested.
“The blood of soldiers and civilians in Israel is a tool in the hands of small politicians,” Schijveschuurder told the Post.
While the majority of Israelis have condemned such activities, even in the face of what they see as years of unacceptable Palestinian violence, men such as Schijveschuurder, who have not received the care that their suffering warrants them, may be the group most likely to adopt the premise of price-tag attacks and, as both Peace Now and the settlement movement have stated, such actions must be prevented both for the sake of the Arabs and for the sake of Israel’s own image and moral standing. ■