Israel’s apathetic hunt for ‘price tag’ attackers

Published in Haaretz

Israel’s extensive security apparatus has been deployed to remarkable effect against Palestinian terrorists, so why haven’t the ‘price-tag’ thugs been brought in? The answers don’t do us much credit.

“Price-tag” attacks have swept through the Jerusalem area this June, leaving the Arab neighborhoods and villages of Sheikh Jarrah, Beit Hanina and Abu Ghosh defaced by racist graffiti, vandalized tombstones and torched vehicles. Of these, Abu Ghosh has a special place in Israeli consciousness, the village having sided with the Jews ever since the War of Independence. Thisincident brought out the big guns: a denunciation from the prime minister and a solidarity delegation led by President Shimon Peres.

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Only a day earlier, the government decided not to term “price tag” attacks as acts of terror, designating perpetrators instead as members of an illegal organization, which supposedly would grant the police additional powers to combat the phenomenon. But this was glitter to dazzle apathetic Knesset members. Price tag thugs do not necessarily belong to any organization, and our security forces have always had the means to stop these attacks; what they lack is the will and the political backing.

The “price tag” campaign began a few years ago in the West Bank. Each time the army would act to remove an illegal outpost, or when plans of such an operation became known, settler extremists would make sure that some Palestinians somewhere would “pay the price.” The villages or individuals appeared to be targeted at random, with no clear connection to the outpost in question, thus adding to the sense of unpredictability. The campaign has escalated over the past two-and-a-half years to include actions against an IDF base, a growing number of attacks on private property, churches and mosques within and outside Arab villages, within the Green Line or in East Jerusalem, and assaults on Jewish-Israeli critics of the occupation, such as activists from Peace Now.

“Price tag” incidents are sometimes dismissed as vandalism, but they have gone far beyond graffiti and slashed tires; there have been harsh beatings and the torching of holy sites. The level of violence and victimization may be far from the mass murder of suicide bombings and shootings, but it would be disingenuous to minimize the feeling of victims that they are being terrorized – and this is clearly the intention of the assailants.

But the “terrorist” nomenclature debate is something of a red herring. Outside the circles of settler extremists and their supporters, no one disputes that these acts are abhorrent. Even Naftali Bennett, head of Habayit Hayehudi and the settlers’ leading advocate in the Knesset, recently condemned the attacks as the single outstanding threat to the settlement enterprise.

The “price-tag: attacks may be indeed difficult to anticipate or thwart. The four geographically separate revenge attacks on May 29 this year marking the Shloshim – the end of the 30 day mourning period after the murder of Evyatar Borovsky, a young actor and father from the settlement of Yizhar – were obviously coordinated, but many “price-tag” assaults seem to be carried out by unaffiliated thugs.

One of these attacks, the tire-slashing, car torching and graffiti attack in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood, was videotaped by a Palestinian security camera and broadcast on Israeli television– but it was a lightning attack which lasted in all less than one minute.

But Israel has an extensive security apparatus, which has been deployed to remarkable effect against Palestinian terrorists. The question is, why haven’t these resources been used to break up the campaign? There are a few possible answers, none of which do us much credit:

1. The Israeli watchdog NGO Yesh Din has carefully documented the systematic and appalling lack of law enforcement in all crimes committed by settlers against Palestinians, and “price tag” attacks are simply part of the general pattern. Palestinians who want to file complaints against settlers in the West Bank need a Jewish escort to even reach a police station, since they are located inside settlements. Routine police procedure is ignored, settler alibis are accepted without investigation, outposts are not searched for stolen flocks or goods, and indictments rarely if ever lead to convictions. According to Yesh Din, only 10% of the cases they have monitored result in indictments.

2. Nobody wants to take responsibility. The IDF has never embraced the policing function as part of their mandate in the territories, and does not like run-ins with settlers, whose leaders rely on their political connections to thwart justice. Some report that IDF commanders in the past who tried to rein in settler violence found themselves transferred. Many soldiers still believe they are not allowed to detain settlers, which is not true, and others don’t care what is done to Palestinians.

3. The police don’t have the capacity to stop the attacks, are incompetent, don’t see their job as protecting Palestinians, or all of the above. The police are undermanned in the territories and geographically scattered. Perhaps West Bank police who are settlers themselves are reluctant to prosecute their own community. Inside Israel, the police are still in transition from treating Arab citizens as the enemy to seeing them as their clients.

4. Somebody is protecting the criminals. For all of Naftali Bennett’s protestations, there is understandable suspicion that political pressure has been preventing a more serious crackdown. The Shin Bet might be reluctant to pursue today’s Jewish underground, having felt burned by the political echelon in the past, or may just not be involved in efforts to counter the attacks.

5. Perhaps our security establishment, despite our politicians’ protestations, does not assess the danger as that serious. “Price-tag” attacks may be considered a nuisance but not likely to cause deaths or lead to an uprising, and to primarily affect populations with little or no political power. While the incidents give Israel bad PR, they are not considered on par with the other threats facing the country.

6. The most cynical interpretation among these pessimistic assessments is that the “price-tag” campaign is tolerated because it serves a security purpose. As has been documented in much recent coverage (The Gatekeepers, The Law in these Parts, This American Life, Breaking the Silence 10-Year Report, etc.), the occupation is dependent upon a system of control designed to intimidate Palestinians and keep them on edge, so they never know where the next harassment or violent intrusion into their lives will come from. Perhaps by turning a blind eye and not making the “price-tag” campaign a security priority, the attacks feed this atmosphere of fear while offering official channels complete deniability.

There are some Israeli Jews who see “price-tag” attacks as a personal and national affront. The Tag Meir Coalition (“Enlightening Tag”), which rhymes with the Hebrew for price tag, Tag Mehir), organizes solidarity visits to the victimized villages and individuals and presses for political action to stop the attacks. More than 200 people showed up for their solidarity visit to Abu Ghosh, which inspired some locals to say that the outpouring of love almost made the suffering worth it, and thousands have taken part in other visits. The Coalition includes more than 30 organizations including religious Zionist NGOs, and is headed by Gadi Gvaryahu, himself an Orthodox Jew.

Obviously, solidarity and hand-wringing are not enough. The real problem is one of will. We need the IDF, the police and the Shin Bet, to use all the means at their disposal to eliminate the “price-tag” campaign, and not to be beholden to any group that would seek to thwart their efforts. Settler leaders need to spit out the assailants, not shelter them. If we make stopping the “price-tag” campaign a national security priority, attacks could come to an end in a few weeks or months. Otherwise, our failures will provide depressing material for a sequel to The Gatekeepers.

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