Frustrated at their inability to stem a spike in violence against West Bank Palestinians by Jewish settlers with so-called "price tag" attacks, over the weekend Israeli law enforcement authorities came within a whisker of getting permission to treat the attackers like terrorists.
Israel’s security cabinet on Sunday gave wider authority to Israel’s defense ministry to go after price taggers, but stopped short of adopting recommendations from Israel’s justice and police ministers to declare the attacks a form of terrorism. That hesitation was reportedly because of objections by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Attacks by right-wing vigilantes have surged this year. But few arrests or indictments have been made after they have desecrated West Bank mosques, damaged Palestinian cars, and scrawled graffiti outside the residences of Israeli peace activists. The number of incidents during the first five months of 2013 nearly matched the figure of 200 for all of last year, a phenomenon which Israeli authorities say risks touching off a Palestinian intifada and has embarrassed Israel internationally.
But in a country that reflexively associates terrorism with suicide bombings by Palestinian militants, the proposal to make the rare link of "terrorism" to Israelis has sparked a debate about just what is meant by the term.
"You can’t say that killing of civilians is the same as destroying property," said Mitchell Barak, a Israeli pollster and political analyst. "Authorities are going after a group of people that they have legal difficulty with. This is a way to get a broad-based legal backing to do what they want. When you call them terrorists you can do anything."
Prices to pay
"Price tag" refers to type of an extremist attack – sometimes linked to settlers in illegal West Bank outposts or individual disaffected teenagers – carried out as retribution for a Palestinian attack or the removal of an outpost by the Israeli army.
The attack is usually an act of vandalism and experts on the phenomenon say the goal is to influence Israel’s government to take a harder line on the Palestinians or allow more settlement growth.
Israeli security authorities have had difficulty gathering intelligence on and penetrating groups planning such attacks and some analysts suggest that is because they are highly dispersed and thinly organized.
In addition to giving Israel’s defense minister the power to outlaw price tag groups, the Sunday decision by the security cabinet gives law enforcement authorities in the West Bank the same tools to go after price taggers as they have with Palestinian militants, according to a Justice Ministry official.
Another government official said it lengthens the amount of time officials can interrogate suspects and makes punishment more severe. Palestinian suspects can be held for days before seeing a lawyer and months before going to trial.
"Price tag actions, up until now, have not taken any lives," said the Israeli government official, who asked not be identified. "Therefore, it is incorrect to define this activity like organizations which carry out blatant terrorist attacks, such as Hezbollah or Hamas."
In a recent price tag attack marking the end of the 30-day Jewish mourning period for a murdered settler, nine cars were torched in the West Bank while seven cars were scrawled with "revenge" in an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem.
For one Israeli-Arab human rights activist from Jerusalem, who found her car last month spray painted and tires punctured, the effect has been intimidating. "I’m really afraid," said the activist, who declined to give her name for fear of future attacks.
The debate on the legal definition of a "price tag" attack is not over: The acts are included as terrorism in a counter-terrorism bill sponsored by Justice Minister Tzippi Livni.
Ms. Livni is concerned that, without a crackdown, price tag actions could both spark an uprising in the West Bank and spread throughout Israel proper. Law enforcement officials say that the attacks need to be defined as nationalist-motivated acts rather than simply criminal. But settler leaders say the effort is misplaced and that price tag is the work of disaffected kids rather than murderous organizations.
"In the Israeli collective psychology, terror is another thing. Terror is detonating a bomb in a crowded restaurant," says Danny Dayan, a member of the Yesha settlers council. He says price tag attacks hurt the settlement movement, but that calling them terrorism is ridiculous. "Accurate symbols should be used. The struggle against these type of actions should be continuous and strong. I don’t think denominating it as a terror organization is beneficial."
Israel’s government has grappled with Jewish terrorism in the past. Following the massacre of dozens of Palestinian worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron by Israeli-American gunman Baruch Goldstein, Israeli authorities outlawed the extremist Kach organization. In the early 1980s, law enforcement agencies arrested and convicted members of a Jewish underground which carried out terrorist hits on West Bank mayors.
Today, peace and human rights activists say the new measures are not enough to offset years of lax protection for Palestinians. They say that the focus on price tag efforts diverts attention from a broader campaign of violence and property destruction against Palestinian villagers by settlers. They place the blame on the Israeli military, considered the sovereign power in the occupied West Bank, for standing by while settlers attack Palestinians. They also say political leaders are at fault for not giving law enforcement authorites the backing to go after the price taggers.
"Talk of declaring this as terrorism is important in the educational sense. These acts are acts of violence and intimidation meant to secure political results, against civilians – this is the definition of terrorism," says Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer who believes that the attacks should be treated as hate crimes.
"The whole debate is an attempt to hide the huge failure of law enforcement authorities in providing effective defense to Palestinian communities. The problem is not with the legal tools, the problem is with the will to use them."