When Ahmad Milhem heard earlier this month that Jewish extremists had scrawled “Mohammad is a pig” on the walls of his local mosque, he feared for both his Arab and Jewish neighbors.
“If our young (Arab) residents had caught the perpetrators, it could’ve led to a lynching,” said Mr. Milhem, head of the public regional committee of Baqaa al-Gharbiyeh in Northern Israel. “We were lucky this time, but that day will come – soon.”
The incident was one of a growing number of attacks carried out by “Tag Mehir,” or “Price Tag,” a group of Jewish ultra-nationalists who say they will exact a “price” for every attempt by the Israeli government to curb Jewish settlement in the West Bank – a land Palestinians see as part of their future state – as well as retribution for Arab offenses against Jews.
Amid stagnating peace talks and simmering tensions, such flare-ups could trigger massive confrontations throughout the country.
The group's crimes have ranged from desecrating mosques and churches to chopping down trees belonging to Palestinians. They have also targeted Israeli security forces as the government takes halting steps to forfeit land to Palestinians as part of a tenuous peace process. Most of their members are teenagers and young adults from hilltop outposts in the West Bank.
But in the past two years, a counter-movement named “Tag Meir,” or “Tag of Light,” has sprung into action. Its activists travel to the scene of targeted Arab communities in a gesture of Arab-Jewish solidarity by local leaders like Mr. Milhem and Rabbi Ron Kronish, director of an Israeli inter-religious organization.
The coalition is made up of Jews, Muslims, and Christians, including Jewish settlers who shun the vandals in their midst. Their goal is to remind Arabs and Jews alike of “another voice, a voice of sanity and moderation," says Rabbi Kronish.
The group assists victims in handling bureaucratic procedures such as registering the attacks with the police and insurance companies. They say that they've made progress in raising awareness of the influence of prejudice toward Palestinians throughout Israeli society and increasing pressure on the Knesset to combat settler violence.
Appeal to Netanyahu
In a country plagued by rising apathy and prejudice, these are not simple tasks. On Sunday, Arab and Jewish leaders staged a modest demonstration outside the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Though Israeli officials have compared the Tag Mehir movement to terrorism, the government has yet to deliver on promises to halt its activities, the demonstrators said Sunday in a direct address to Mr. Netanyahu.
According to public interest attorney Einat Hurvitz, the lack of punishment is “a matter of political will, not capability," pointing out that the Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence agency, is renowned for swiftly identifying and imprisoning Palestinian militants.
Last summer, the government said it would “crack down” on Tag Mehir after a 22-year-old Orthodox Jewish Israeli was arrested for vandalizing a Christian monastery in the West Bank. On the ground though, little has changed, say critics.
Between 2005 and 2013, of the thousands of complaints relating to destruction of Palestinian olive groves in the West Bank, less than 3 percent of cases were picked up by district police, according to the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din.
The government has generally treated such incidents as random instances of teenage rowdiness, said Dr. Avinoam Rosenak, head of the Department of Jewish Thought at Hebrew University. But settler violence goes back to 2005, when Israel evacuated settlements and pulled troops from the Gaza Strip, he noted. Since then, right-wing settlers have vowed to uphold a “balance of terror” in which they would respond violently and immediately to every state move to restrict their presence.
A 2009 book published by a settler rabbi claimed that Judaism allows for the killing of non-Jews. Critics say this has bolstered the fringe movement and strained an already fragile relationship between the settler camp and the secular state.
Tag Meir director Gadi Gvaryahu warns that if the government continues its policy of impunity, the country is at enormous risk of lives, as well as integrity. “The price is very heavy for all of us," he says.