The Sa’adah Mosque was still smouldering when the first worshippers arrived at 5am, but residents of the Palestinian village of Akraba soon knew the fire was no accident – the words ‘Price Tag’ and ‘death’ were written on the walls in Hebrew.
Nachman Shai, Deputy Speaker of Israel’s parliament and former spokesman for the IDF, didn’t mince his words when he found out.
“These people are not Jews,” he said of the April attack. “Whoever is not respecting the prayer house of others is not worth that his own prayer house should be respected.” That the attack took place immediately after Holocaust Memorial Day made it worse, he said. “After Yom HaShoah, Jews are setting a prayer house on fire… 80 years ago, in November 1938, you had Kristalnacht – Nazis burned synagogues all over Germany. This is how the annihilation of the Jewish people started in Europe.”
Other parliamentarians, including Amir Peretz, a former defence minister, have pressed for action and condemnation from the top, with Israel’s domestic intelligence service Shin Bet revealing last week that there had been 13 such attacks in the first four months of 2018 alone, compared to eight in total last year.
Yet the ongoing ‘price tag’ attacks by Jewish religious nationalists in the West Bank haven’t made many headlines outside the region. Occasionally the issue will explode into mainstream news, as in 2015, when settlers set fire to a house in Duma while a Palestinian family slept inside, killing three, including an 18-month old baby.
Protagonists of the price tag attacks – so-called because attackers say they are reprisals for acts of Palestinian violence or acts against settlements by the Israeli government – are seldom caught.
Among the most disturbing incidents is also the most recent. Last Tuesday, more than 20 cars and properties were vandalised in two different Arab areas – east Jerusalem and northern Galilee. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said they were investigating, with forensics teams on-site.
Yet even before Akraba, there had already been two such attacks in April. In the village of Far’ata, five cars were vandalised with the Hebrew words for ‘administrative price tag’, in reference to the administrative orders banning Jewish extremists from entering parts of the West Bank. In the Beit Hanina area of East Jerusalem, tyres were slashed and graffiti spray-painted on cars.
In January’s attack in the East Jerusalem area of Beit Safafa, cars were not vandalised but burned, the words ‘price tag’ and ‘death to Arabs’ scrawled nearby, whereas in the village of Beit Iksa, home walls were daubed with race hate.
In February, ‘death to Arabs’ and ‘relocation now’ was written on cars in the village of Jit, near Nablus, the attackers also adding the name of Yitzhak Gabay, a Jewish extremist convicted of setting fire to a bilingual Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem.
Attackers often spell out their reasoning in detail. In an attack on cars in the East Jerusalem area of Pisgat Ze’ev in March, residents woke to graffiti reading: “Arabs of Jerusalem are terrorists, expel them or kill them.” Another read: “Let us deal with them.” Still another read: “There is no place in Israel for foreigners and the enemies of God.”
In the village of Nabi Saleh, perpetrators wrote ‘Death to Ahed Tamimi’, a Palestinian teenager convicted of slapping a soldier. Days earlier, in the village of Silwan, they targeted cars, writing ‘Regards from Itamar,’ in reference to Rabbi Itamar Ben-Gal, 29, the father-of-four who was stabbed to death in February.
In the village of Einabus The Israeli human rights charity Yesh Din documented how masked Jewish men attacked a shepherd with sticksbefore killing five of his sheep then running off towards the Yitzhar settlement.
Yet Jewish extremists have not limited themselves to Palestinians and mosques. In June 2015, the Benedictine Monastery (Church of Loaves and Fishes on Sea of Galilee) in Tabgha, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, was gutted by fire set by two religious-nationalists. Two people were injured. Again, Hebrew graffiti was found at the site, denouncing the worship of idols.
Dovish Israeli groups and even IDF bases have been targeted too, and Israeli authorities, who have long recognised the wider problem of Jewish extremism in the West Bank, last month heralded a breakthrough, when three brothers from the settlement of Nahliel were convicted of being members of a terror cell and sentenced to five years in prison.
One or more of the brothers was an IDF soldier when perpetrating the attacks, which included throwing gas grenades at a house near Ramallah where a family with a nine-year-old boy were sleeping. Their father is a rabbi affiliated to the extreme right.
Gadi Gvaryahu, chairman of anti-racism forum Tag Meir, formed in reaction to the first attacks, said the Jewish extremists “will only make the walls of hatred higher and endanger the lives of innocents”.
The group says it had to petition Israel’s High Court of Justice “to pressure law enforcement of inciters and perpetrators of hate crime”.
Netanyahu has criticised the price-tag attacks but stopped short of calling the perpetrators ‘terrorists,’ saying it does not compare to Hamas. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin went further, saying: “Burning holy places of worship is terror and it needs to be taken care of like terror.”
Israeli police say they are doing what they. On 4 April, officers stopped a bus of Jewish extremists linked to the Otzma Yehudit group heading towards the Palestinian village of Umm al-Fahm to protest against a mosque accused of radicalising residents.
Had the protest gone ahead, police said it would “present a real danger to human life and public safety”. One wonders whether that was the plan all along.