Attackers torched nine cars in Israel’s West Bank and slashed the tires on 28 cars in an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem on June 19. The Hebrew word for “revenge” was scrawled across a number of the vandalized vehicles. Just weeks earlier, vandals spray painted Jerusalem’s Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion with the words, “Christians are monkeys” for the second time in two months.
Both incidents are believed to be part of a growing trend in Israel called “price tag” attacks, a form of retribution for violence against Israeli settlers or the government dismantling of illegal settlements. The perpetrators claim a “price” must be paid for any anti-settlement activity and often label the vandalism with their trademark phrase, “price tag.”
These attacks are on the rise in Israel, and their targets have expanded from primarily West Bank Arabs to peace activists, churches, and monasteries. For a region accustomed to the unknowns of terrorist attacks, Israel finds itself grappling with how to define these attacks, and what they mean. Some victims claim the government hasn’t done enough to track down and prosecute the perpetrators in a country known for its superior security forces.
The number of price tag attacks has grown from only a few in 2008 to more than 200 in 2012. Already the number of incidents reported during the first half of this year has surpassed last year’s total. The violators have desecrated mosques and churches, demolished olive trees owned by Palestinians, torched cars and places of worship, and scrawled offensive graffiti across Christian sights in Israel.
The primary suspects are disaffected youth among ultraright Jewish settlers, and while some acts seem to be coordinated and tied to a particular event or announcement by the government, others appear random and unrelated.
On May 17, a group of Palestinians, a mosque, and a Greek Orthodox monastery filed a case in a New York district court against five U.S.-based organizations. The lawsuit alleges that these nonprofits have supported terrorist activities through the funding of Israeli settlements.
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities and The Hebron Fund are among the list of organizations cited in the lawsuit. Both organizations refuse to comment on the allegations, which accuse the groups of violating the material support statute, a law that has been primarily used to ban funding of Palestinian terror groups by U.S. charities. The indictment of the Holy Land Foundation is the most notable example of prosecution under this law.
Omri Ceren, a senior advisor at The Israel Project, says the allegations are a far stretch. “It’s going to be tough to tie settlements to the price tag attacks. The settlement leaders are almost unanimous in ostracizing these guys for obvious reasons. It makes them look terrible and it brings attention that they don’t want.”
With price tag attacks on the rise—particularly against churches and monasteries—the Israeli government is also garnering unwanted attention.
Last fall, price taggers defaced three Christian properties in Israel, including the Trappist monastery in Latrun which was lit on fire and spray painted with graffiti. In February of last year, the Valley of the Cross Monastery and the Narkis Street Baptist House were vandalized with offensive phrases such as “Jesus drop dead” and “death to Christians.”
“This is a criminal act and those responsible must be severely punished,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the attack in Latrun. “Religious freedom and worship are two of the most basic institutions.”
Some Christian leaders in Israel say the government isn’t doing enough to hunt down the perpetrators of such crimes, pointing to a much quicker government response when a Jewish site has been vandalized.
After the monastery attack in Latrun, senior Catholics and Protestants issued a statement complaining not only about government inaction but ultra-Orthodox teaching they say tells children they have an obligation to attack Christians. “What happened in Latrun is only another in a long series of attacks against Christians and their places of worship,” said Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the head of the Franciscan Order in the Holy Land.
In 2011, price taggers targeted the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, spray painting such phrases as, “Hitler, thank you for the holocaust,” with a signature of “the global Zionist mafia.” The culprits were quickly apprehended and turned out to be an anti-Zionist and ultra-Orthodox gang trying to “copycat” the price tag attacks launched by settlement youth. Police may have had an easier time tracking down the culprits, knowing that only extremist haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, groups would write slogans with such blatant anti-Israel sentiments.
Members of the extremist cell were arrested within three weeks and the leader of the group told police he wanted to bomb the Knesset.
In June, the Israeli security cabinet voted against labeling price taggers as “terrorists” but did adopt stricter measures for preventing and punishing such attacks. These new regulations allow law enforcement officers to treat price tag attacks the same way they would acts of terrorism.
Police in the Jerusalem area arrested 12 suspects with alleged connections to the 56 price tag attacks in their district during 2012, but most of them were released. Ceren, however, disagrees with accusations of a lackluster government response: “It’s just very difficult to make the case that these are anything but a fringe group of a fringe group, let alone that the government is providing them with immunity.”
Analysts are quick to point out that Christians still fare far better in Israel than surrounding Muslim countries where persecution involves much more than offensive graffiti and vandalism. Israel’s price tag attacks have not led to any injuries or deaths. Still, Christian and Muslim leaders are hopeful that stricter laws targeting price taggers will prevent a slippery slope of growing minority persecution in a country that is no stranger to trials and tribulations.