The price-tag vandals’ self-destructive attacks

Price-tag vandals claim to be trying to protect the settlements. Instead, they’re undermining the pillars on which the settlements rest: the army’s protection and the public’s support.

price tag graffiti mosque 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS/Abed Omar Qusini)
price tag graffiti mosque 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS/Abed Omar Qusini)
In Jewish tradition, the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is supposed to be one of soul-searching, reflection and repentance. But it doesn’t look like much of that went on among the so-called “price-tag” vandals last week: Instead, they escalated their attacks on both Arabs and the Israel Defense Forces.
We’ll leave aside the fact that price-tag assaults – so called because they are meant to deter house demolitions in the settlements by exacting a “price” in the form of reprisals (usually vandalistic) against Palestinians and/or Israeli soldiers – are blatantly immoral under both Jewish and secular ethics; I doubt morality worries the vandals overmuch. But they do claim to want to protect the settlements – and on that level, their attacks are downright self-destructive.
The settlements’ continued existence rests on two pillars. One is the IDF: Few settlers would be willing to remain without the army to protect them against Palestinian terror. The other is public support. The real reason successive governments haven’t yet evacuated most settlements, or even most illegal outposts, despite massive international pressure is because most Israelis don’t like the idea of throwing other ordinary decent Israelis out of their homes. Hence they will countenance large-scale evictions only if the country will thereby attain some major strategic benefit: a durable peace agreement, or at least enhanced security (as Ariel Sharon falsely promised the Gaza disengagement would produce).
The price-tag attacks undermine both pillars simultaneously.
First, the IDF: The vast majority of law-abiding settlers recognize their debt to the army and strive to show their gratitude (usually, being Jewish, by plying soldiers with food). But price-tag vandals have increasingly targeted the army. First, it was just “heat-of-the-moment” attacks: hurling insults, hitting soldiers or vandalizing army vehicles during confrontations over house demolitions. Then, last month, came the first deliberate attack on an IDF base: Anonymous vandals broke in, damaged several vehicles and spray-painted price-tag graffiti.
Last week brought another escalation: A routine army patrol reported being deliberately ambushed and attacked by settlers near Shiloh. According to the soldiers, they ran into a settler-manned roadblock. When they tried to turn their jeep around to avoid a confrontation, they discovered that more settlers had blocked the road behind them. The settlers then surrounded the vehicle and punched one soldier in the face. A melee inevitably ensued.
Clearly, such incidents greatly reduce soldiers’ motivation to protect the settlers: As one officer reportedly told an IDF inquiry into the incident, it’s hard to now tell these soldiers to go back and protect their assailants.
Moreover, if the IDF has to protect its troops from settlers as well as Palestinians, that will inevitably affect its deployment, to the settlements’ detriment. For instance, soldiers are routinely sent to guard settlements and outposts. But after some incidents in which soldiers said they were threatened by outpost residents, the IDF is now reportedly considering curtailing the length of these deployments such that no soldier will spend more than a couple of days at an outpost. That means they will have no time to get acquainted with the territory, which will impair their ability to defend it.
Perhaps even worse, however, is the effect price-tag attacks have on the general public. As noted, most Israelis currently oppose evacuating settlements, but that stems from their belief that most settlers are ordinary, decent people like themselves. In contrast, few Israelis have qualms about, say, demolishing a Palestinian terrorist’s house. That’s precisely why a certain subset of the left has striven – so far unsuccessfully – to paint all settlers as thugs: They understand that public sympathy is the settlers’ greatest asset.
But the price-tag vandals may yet succeed where anti-settler leftists have failed. Low-level vandalism might not have attracted much attention, but torching Palestinian mosques is a different matter: Most Israelis can easily draw the comparison to torched synagogues. And that’s already happened a few times.
Last week’s events – the torching of a mosque in Tuba Zanghariya, in northern Israel, and the spray-painting of offensive graffiti (like “Death to Arabs” and “price tag”) in Muslim and Christian cemeteries in Jaffa – were even worse from this standpoint. Many Israelis view Palestinian areas of the West Bank as another planet, and Palestinians as an enemy nation. But these latest attacks targeted fellow citizens – and in Tuba Zanghariya’s case, citizens who have been allied with the Jewish majority since before the state’s establishment.
But worst of all, from the perspective of public reaction, are obviously attacks on the IDF. Many Israeli Jews have little contact with Israeli Arabs, but most do have friends or relatives in the army. Hence attacks on soldiers are taken very personally.
Clearly, not all attacks attributed to price-tag vandals are necessarily their work. The one suspect arrested in the Tuba Zanghariya attack indeed studied at the yeshiva in Yitzhar, which is considered a center of price-tag activity, but he has yet to be indicted, much less convicted. And police aren’t convinced the cemetery vandalism was a price-tag attack at all. But even if some incidents are copycat attacks – or even, as right-wing conspiracy theorists like to claim, deliberate efforts to smear the settlers – it’s the original price-tag vandals who make the accusations credible. 
It’s also true that the media outrageously downplays identical attacks on Jewish targets, as Yisrael Medad superbly explained in these pages, leading to justified double-standard charges. But that in no way mitigates the price-tag vandals’ crimes.
Unfortunately, the vandals seem incapable of grasping the self-destructive nature of their actions, while the police, with characteristic haplessness, have thus far proven incapable of catching the criminals. Nor are most settlers in a position to help: The ordinary law-abiding majority has no more contact with these criminals than other law-abiding Israelis do with criminals in their hometowns.
So altogether, it looks like it’s going to be a great year for the anti-settler left, if for no one else. I hope the vandals are happy with their achievement.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.