Israelis worry that surge in 'price tag' attacks is costing Israel abroad

The uptick in extremist vandalism of non-Jewish property comes ahead of the pope's high-profile visit to Israel, shining an uncomfortable spotlight on a growing problem.

Ammar Awad/Reuters
A municipality worker paints over graffiti daubed in Hebrew on a wall of the Romanian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem on Friday. The graffiti in Hebrew reads 'price tag,' a reference by ultranationalist Jews to making the government "pay" for any curbs on Jewish settlement on Palestinian land.

“Death to Arabs.”

“Shut down mosques, not yeshivot [Jewish seminaries].”

“Jesus is garbage.”

This is a sampling of the messages that have been spray-painted on mosques, churches, and non-Jewish schools in Israel over the past few weeks, accompanied by the slashing of tires, arson, and the scrawling of the star of David on non-Jewish cars and offices. The number of hate crimes spiked by nearly 200 percent in the last three months.

No one has been killed. But relatively few perpetrators have been brought to justice, either. Some Israelis, including top government officials, are increasingly concerned that the unchecked violence sends the wrong message about Israel's values. And though the violence is largely seen as the work of a tiny fringe, the state's failure to prevent such incidents or prosecute those responsible has raised doubts about its level of resolve.

“It damages, of course, the democracy that Israel purports itself to uphold,” Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal said yesterday. “Everyone knows the Israeli police set up special units to track attacks like these. In light of the fact that the great majority of vandalism acts do not lead to trials, we must ask if the government is willing to get down to the root of the problem.”

The issue has become particularly sensitive due to Pope Francis’s visit in two weeks, ahead of which Israel has been trumpeting its superior treatment of Christians, who face killings, kidnappings, and destruction of churches throughout much of the region. Some are concerned that Jewish extremists will use the elevated attention to further step up attacks, perhaps in part because of a rumored deal between Israel and the Vatican that will give the Catholic Church control of a room above King David’s tomb that is the traditional site of the Last Supper.

“Everything is magnified abroad and that’s dismal for Israel," says Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.

How ‘terrorism’ label would boost police toolbox

Such nationalist vandalism, known as “price-tag” attacks, began about six years ago in an attempt to demonstrate that there would be a cost for Israeli government policies seen as undermining Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

Young ideological settlers are widely believed to be the main perpetrators. Their formative years growing up in the West Bank were shaped by Israel’s 2005 evacuation of all 8,000-plus Israelis from the Gaza Strip – a deeply divisive move that eroded settlers’ faith in the government.

A year ago the police marshaled the resources of the 1,000-strong Lahav 433 unit, originally set up to deal with organized crime, to focus more specifically on price-tag incidents by tapping phones, collecting intelligence, and tracking suspects. They augmented that six months ago with special 30-man units in each of Israel’s seven police districts that deal exclusively with price-tag incidents.

But because the vandalism is classified as crime rather than terrorism, the bar for conducting searches and arrests is high, and evidence is hard to obtain because perpetrators often act alone. They are not allowed to search a home without a court order, and can only detain a suspect for 24 hours without charge, which adds significant time pressure for finding evidence.

“If [we] can pick up tomorrow morning 20 or 30 people without asking any questions … I’m sure we’ll be able to put the puzzle together a lot quicker,” says Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. “At the moment we’re working one by one.”

Last week, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich renewed calls for classifying such crimes as terrorism to give police and the Shin Bet, the domestic intelligence agency, more tools to pursue perpetrators, including detention without trial.

But many Israelis bristle at equating vandalism with terrorism. Yesterday a parliamentary committee rejected a bill that would compensate Arab victims of price-tag attacks as if they were victims of terrorist attacks. Israeli Arab lawmaker Issawi Frej decried the rejection as “part of a policy of discrimination and incitement." The Israeli government, he said, "provides support for 'price tag' terror, and creates a de facto approval of racial discrimination in Israel.”

The significant political clout of religious nationalists, who largely condemn the attacks but tend to sympathize with the frustration driving them, contributes to the lack of arrests and convictions.

Forceful state crackdown on settlers ‘counterproductive’

From April 2 to May 5, there were at least 16 price-tag incidents – roughly equivalent to the total number of incidents in the previous three months, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The uptick follows the destruction of illegal homes in the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar and the army’s unprecedented seizure of a yeshiva seen as a hotbed of Jewish extremism. The head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg, coauthored a 2009 book, Torat HaMelekh, which argues that killing non-Jews is permissible under Jewish law.

Most religious Jews dismiss such teachings.

“[Jewish law] categorically does not allow vandalism or any attacks on persons or property, whether Jew or non-Jew – it's a basic principle of decency," says Rabbi Jeffrey Woolf, an Orthodox scholar of Jewish law at Bar Ilan University.

But Dr. Woolf says that the broader context includes ongoing Arab violence against Jews, including Molotov cocktail attacks and rock throwing, which are sometimes fatal. "There is a common feeling that nothing is being done about it," he says.

The perceived lack of action on Palestinian violence, coupled with the significant force used to crack down on Jewish extremists, has fueled distrust.

When the police recently entered Yitzhar – a settlement known for vandalizing police and army vehicles – to confiscate the computer of a price-tag suspect, they brought 100 policemen in a raid that lasted two hours.

“If people are disregarding the law and causing damage to other individuals’ property, the government has a responsibility to keep law and order," acknowledges David Haivri, a settlement leader and former spokesman who lives not far from Yitzhar.

"But targeting entire communities because the police and [Shin Bet] are frustrated that they can’t pinpoint the individuals carrying out the acts … surely in many ways is counterproductive, because it causes a negative feeling in the entire community."

But many Israelis are relatively apathetic about the issue.

“It’s kind of like, oh you know, those crazy people on the other side of the moon up there in Yitzhar – who cares? … It’s not the average citizen’s problem,” says Rabbi Ron Kronish, who is part of the Tag Meir coalition that organized a protest at the prime minister’s residence yesterday, which drew about 400 Jews and Arabs. Except it is, he says.

“The growth of the phenomenon [of price-tag attacks] … is doing a great disservice to the state of Israel, the Jewish state, by letting the world think that these people who are beyond the law are representing Judaism,” says Rabbi Kronish, director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI). “I think it’s detrimental to the state of Israel to let this go on for another minute.”

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