Last Thursday, after arson damaged the administrative buildings of the historic Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and fishes at Taghba, in Israel’s Galilee region, Israeli Interior Minister Silvan Shalom promised to bring the culprits to justice. Even if Shalom spoke with sincerity, he can’t have spoken with confidence. The fire shows all the markings of an attack by Jewish West Bank settlers – the kind that normally goes unpunished.
“Price tag” is the name settlers have been giving to organized acts of violence since 2005, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered them to evacuate the Gaza Strip. As the name suggests, settlers regard these attacks as acts of retribution – by spreading fear and disorder, they mean to impose a price for every check to their will.
Many of these criminal acts have followed the demolition of a settlement by government order or an attack on settlers by Palestinians. However, Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, has observed that settlers have been initiating violence with increasing frequency. The UN agrees. According to a report compiled in 2011, acts of violence against Palestinians had increased almost 150% over the past two years.
Settler attacks run the gamut from vandalism and arson, through the destruction of olive and almond orchards belonging to Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, all the way to last July’s kidnapping and murder of 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir. Understandably, given the demographics of Israel and the West Bank, most of the targets have been Muslims, along with their property and houses of worship. Violence against churches, however, is not uncommon. Last year, as Pope Francis was preparing to visit the Holy Land, the message “Death to Arabs and Christians and those who hate Israel” was found spray-painted on the walls of Jerusalem’s Notre Dame Center, owned by the Vatican.
Many of those arrested for price tag attacks have been teenagers and young adults known locally as “hilltop youth.” That being so, it’s not surprising that a constant feature of these attacks is graffiti calculated to add an extra note of spite and menace. Along with the words “Price tag,” inscriptions have included “Arabs = thieves,” “Jesus was garbage,” “There is no coexistence with cancer.” Part of a Hebrew prayer calling for an end to idolatry was found on the walls of the Taghba church.
But settler violence long predates the catchy term “price tag,” and has sunk to depths as low as any plumbed by Hamas. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, an American-born doctor who had settled in Hebron, shot 154 Palestinian Muslims, 29 of them fatally. Two years later, Yigal Amir, who, though not himself a settler, strongly sympathized with the settlers’ agenda, assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In Amir’s view, because Rabin, together with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, had signed the Oslo Accords, which created the Palestinian Authority, he had betrayed the Jewish people and deserved to die.
This contempt for human life, property, and the rule of law has a well thought-out theological basis, whose development Israeli historian Gadi Taub traces in The Settlers and the Struggle over the Meaning of Zionism. Briefly, in the early 20th century, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook argued that, though the Jewish people would be redeemed fully only with the messiah’s arrival, they could participate in the redemptive process by, among other things, helping to create a Jewish state.
After victory in the Six-Day War delivered the West Bank and Gaza Strip — both belonging to the historical land of Israel — into Israeli hands, Kook’s son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, added a new emphasis to his father’s teachings. Victory over the combined might of the Arabs, he taught, had proved that the redemptive process had already begun. Redeeming the Biblical land of Israel became the divine commandment that took precedence over all other commandments. These include, as Rabbi Schlomo Aviner bluntly put it, commandments touching on “moral-human considerations.”
If the Kooks – the son in particular – furnished settlers with the imperative to settle on land in occupied territories in defiance of international law, Rabbi Meir Kahane seems to have supplied them with a style. Born in Brooklyn, Kahane emigrated to Israel in 1971 and began agitating for the expulsion of all non-Jews from the West Bank. Kahane served prison time for plotting attacks against Palestinians; Kach, the political party he founded, was eventually banned for having a racist platform. Graffiti left by settlers at crime scenes often includes the defiant pronouncement “Kahane was right.” Some young settlers wear jackets decorated with the skull and crossbones – a symbol favored by Kahane’s Jewish Defense League.
For that reason, relations between the settlers and the Israeli government have never been completely harmonious. Indeed, in 2009, the International Crisis Group reported that the government’s disengagement from Gaza had caused a vocal minority of settlers to turn openly anti-statist. Followers of Rabbi Shmuel Tal no longer fly the Israeli flag or celebrate Independence Day.
Even from among Israelis, violent acts committed by settlers have drawn some ferocious condemnations. Citizens have demonstrated against them. Israeli novelist Amos Oz has compared price taggers to “Hebrew neo-Nazi groups.” While serving as Justice Minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s last government, Tzipi Livni wanted price-tag attacks reclassified as acts of terrorism. Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, formed in 1980 to promote settler interests, has called the attacks “morally bankrupt.”
And yet, very few price tag attacks have ended in convictions. The human rights group Yesh Din reports that investigations into 96.6% of attacks on Palestinian orchards were abandoned quickly, without much effort being made by authorities. Though price taggers have attacked IDF installations, IDF soldiers have also been known to abet or participate in attacks – most horribly in 2005, when Eden Natan-Zada, AWOL from his unit, opened fire into a bus full of Israeli Arabs, killing four and wounding 12.
Twenty years ago, the overrepresentation of religious Zionists in the IDF officer corps – at that point, a relatively new development – caused Israeli military historian Meir Pa’il to make a grim prediction. The “dangerous inflow” of officers trained at yeshivas in settler theology “is poisoning the army,” Pa’il told the New York Times. “In 10 years, when half the officers are religious, the Government will be restricted in its decisions over evacuating the West Bank,” Pa’il said. “It will lead to mutiny.”
Absent a serious effort to evacuate the West Bank, Pa’il’s fears of an Algiers-style putsch will remain academic. But, with precedent given its due weight, it would seem unreasonable to expect more from the government in the Taghba burning case than a rounding-up of the usual suspects.