Into dark cycle of Mideast revenge, this group tries to bring light

Why We Wrote This

Social media can make activism as easy as the click of a mouse. Our reporter accompanied a group whose more demanding mission is to console the victims of Israeli-Palestinian violence in person.

Yossi Zamir/Tag Meir
Michal Froman, a Jewish settler who was stabbed two years ago by a Palestinian teenager, embraces Satira Dawabshe on June 25 at her home in Duma, West Bank. The Palestinian woman's daughter, son-in-law, and grandson were killed in an arson attack by Jewish extremists. In an age of social media activism, members of the Israeli group Tag Meir come in person to offer consolation and to take a stand against violence.

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Gadi Gvaryahu’s group, Tag Meir, was established in 2011 in response to a spate of so-called price tag attacks. Such assaults, which have been on the rise, involve radical Jewish youth attacking Palestinians or their property as declared reprisals for acts against settlers or the settler movement. Today Tag Meir’s mission is to console victims of terrorism, be they Jews or Palestinians. This week members of the group visited Hussein Dawabshe, a Palestinian whose daughter, son-in-law, and grandson were killed in an arson attack in 2015. Days before their visit the grandfather was verbally accosted by Jewish extremists shouting horrific taunts about his dead grandson as he exited an Israeli courthouse. The Tag Meir members, including a rabbi, a settler, and three Arab Israelis were greeted by family members at the Dawabshe home. In an age of social media activism, the Israelis came in person to offer consolation and to take a stand against violence. “If [terrorists] do something bad we do its opposite; we do something that is good,” Mr. Gvaryahu says. “They make darkness. We bring light.”

Packed into a black minibus heading from Jerusalem into the occupied West Bank, the group of Israelis is on a mission.

They’re on their way to the village of Duma to visit Hussein Dawabshe, a Palestinian whose daughter, son-in-law, and 18-month-old grandson, Ali Saad Dawabshe, were killed in a 2015 arson attack by extremist Jewish settlers. Ali’s older brother, Ahmed, 4 at the time, survived severe burns and is being raised by Hussein Dawabshe and his wife, Satira.

Days before the visit this week, as Mr. Dawabshe exited an Israeli district courthouse in the town of Lod where a hearing had just been held regarding the suspected killers, he was taunted by a group of Jewish extremists who praised his grandson’s murder.

“Where is Ali?” the group chanted. “Ali is dead. Ali is on the grill.”

Gadi Gvaryahu shakes his head, astonished by the cruelty of those words. He’s sitting in front as the minibus leaves Jerusalem’s evening rush-hour traffic and passes checkpoints into the West Bank, where roads are sliced between rocks and terraced hillsides.

Behind him are members of the group he leads, “Tag Meir.” They are doing what they have done hundreds of times before. They are visiting families who have lost loved ones to terrorism – whether the violence was perpetrated by Jews or Palestinians. They come to express their outrage and – in this case – shame at the actions of their fellow Jews.

In an age of social media activism, they come in person to offer their consolation and to take a stand against violence.

“If they do something bad we do its opposite – we do something that is good. They make darkness. We bring light,” Mr. Gvaryahu says.

The organization was established in 2011 in response to a spate of so-called price tag attacks, in which radical Jewish youth, often from settlements, attack Palestinians or their property as declared reprisals for acts against settlers or the settler movement.

Tag Meir is a play on words. “Price tag” in Hebrew is “tag mechir,” while tag meir literally means “light tag.”

“We wanted to give a Jewish Zionist response to the attacks going on,” says Gvaryahu, a Modern Orthodox Jew whose father survived the Holocaust and whose mother’s family settled in Jerusalem in the early 1800s.

Yossi Saidov, spokesman for Tag Meir, says that according to statistics collected by the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security forces, the number of price tag attacks has soared in the last three months to twice the number in all of 2017.

At least two involved physical violence – two Arab bus drivers stabbed in the Jerusalem area – and there were dozens of attacks on property, he says, including a rise in “agricultural terrorism,” meaning attacks on vineyards and groves of olive and fruit trees. A mosque near Nablus was burned as a “price tag” for the murder of a Jewish Israeli in Jerusalem’s Old City.

A settler joins the group

Tag Meir quickly swelled from a coalition of 20 organizations to about 50 including the kibbutz movement, the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism, and an Orthodox peace activist group called Oz V’Shalom, for Strength and Peace. Some Jewish settlers are in the group as well.

“So you see, we are not just left-wingers,” says Gvaryahu.

The idea is to respond quickly to an incident, with the group conducting three to four visits a month.

“There have been hundreds of visits,” Gvaryahu says. “It does not matter if they are Jewish or Arab. We go to them.”

On the way to Duma, the mini-bus climbs a steep hill to the nearby Jewish settlement of Shiloh, built near the archeological site that marks the biblical area town that served as the first capital of the Israelites.

Michal Froman, an architect who grew up in Shiloh and now lives in a settlement called Tekoa, climbs on. It was in Tekoa where, pregnant with her fifth child two years ago, she was stabbed by a 15-year-old Palestinian. 

The stabbing prompted her activism. She hopes forging a personal connection with Palestinians will help prevent future attacks.

Ms. Froman was outraged by the verbal assault on Dawabshe and decided to join the visit to his home. She admits she has never been deep inside a Palestinian village before. She peers out the window and seems concerned when she hears there will be no army escort.

“How did they dare do that?” she asks of the youths that taunted Dawabshe. “I know some youths who are extreme, but I don’t think even they would dare say such things.”

When she was younger, she offers, she joined with other young settlers protesting Israeli government evacuation orders – both in Gaza and later at a hilltop West Bank settlement called Amona that became a flashpoint. She was even arrested and put in a police car once, she says. “But nothing like that ever came out of my mouth.”

Yossi Zamir/Tag Meir
Rabbi David Bigman, left, with Hussein Dawabshe and his grandson Ahmed, and Gadi Gvaryahu, leader of the group Tag Meir, June 25 in Duma, West Bank.

The visit

The Tag Meir members, about 15 in number, including three Arab Israelis who have become active in the group, walk up the stairs of the Dawabshe home and are greeted by family members. A large banner hangs on a wall, emblazoned with the oversized images of the faces of the slain father, Saad, and son. A photo of Hussein Dawabshe’s slain daughter, Riham, holding her two sons is attached to the poster.

The guests have brought soccer-themed gifts for Ahmed in a nod to the World Cup – a soccer ball and a table-top soccer game. Scars from his burns mark the side of his face and the back of his head. He spent a year in an Israeli hospital recovering after the attack.

Now a rowdy and precocious seven-year-old, Ahmed moves like a blur, kicking his new soccer ball in the kitchen, down the hallway. A rabbi who heads a yeshiva and is a member of the group kicks the ball with Ahmed underneath the banner with his family’s faces.

Windows overlook the valley below and the sloping hills that lead toward Jordan. The visitors gather on a circle of couches and chairs and introduce themselves.

Some have met the family before and been in touch since the attack. Tag Meir members prayed with the family at the hospital.

'We are ashamed'

“We have come to visit you now because of what you went through at the courthouse. We are ashamed of those people,” Gvaryahu says.

Dawabshe looks around the room and says, “I say I don’t have hate. And what good would taking revenge do me anyway? But I did tell the court to take its revenge by sending the suspects to jail for the rest of their lives.”

A disagreement briefly breaks out among the guests. Some argue the Jewish settlers must aggressively condemn “price tag” attacks; others contend settlers are already speaking out.

They exchange personal stories. Froman talks about the trial of the teenager who stabbed her. She recounts how she told him she wanted him to move on with his life and not spend it in prison. But he insisted to her in court he did not regret his crime.

Dawabshe appears moved to see them in his home. “I am happy to see them here,” he says, “they are Jews and have come to support me, and that’s a good thing. I wish all Jews were like them.”

Gvaryahu acknowledges how brutally hard change is. But he insists these visits give him and others energy to do more, not less, to bring it about.

“I think if we were not here the situation would be even worse because we go to places where (aside from Israeli soldiers) we are the only Jews these Palestinian children have ever met.”

At dusk there are handshakes and hugs goodbye. And promises by Tag Meir to come to the courthouse for the next hearing to support the Dawabshe family. To shed some light on the darkness.

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