Israeli society will pay the 'price' for settler vigilantism, rights group warns
The group warns that condoning the militant "price tag" movement, which punishes Palestinians for Israeli curbs on settlements, amounts to appeasement.
When Ahmad Milhem heard earlier this month that Jewish extremists had scrawled â€śMohammad is a pigâ€ť on the walls of his local mosque, he feared for both his Arab and Jewish neighbors.Â
â€śIf our young (Arab) residents had caught the perpetrators, it couldâ€™ve led to a lynching,â€ť said Mr. Milhem, head of the public regional committeeÂ ofÂ Baqaa al-Gharbiyeh in Northern Israel.Â Â â€śWe were lucky this time, but that day will come â€“ soon.â€ť
The incident was one of a growing number of attacks carried out by â€śTag Mehir,â€ť or â€śPrice Tag,â€ť a group of Jewish ultra-nationalists who say they will exact a â€śpriceâ€ť for every attempt by the Israeli government to curb Jewish settlement in the West Bank â€“ a land Palestinians see as part of their future state â€“ as well as retribution for Arab offenses against Jews. Â Â
Amid stagnatingÂ peace talks and simmeringÂ tensions, such flare-ups could triggerÂ massive confrontationsÂ throughout the country.
The group's crimes have ranged from desecrating mosques and churches to chopping down trees belonging to Palestinians. They have also targeted Israeli security forces as the government takes halting steps to forfeit land to Palestinians as part of a tenuous peace process.Â Most of their members are teenagers and young adultsÂ from hilltop outposts in the West Bank.Â
But in the past two years, a counter-movement named â€śTag Meir,â€ť or â€śTag of Light,â€ť has sprung into action. Its activists travel to the scene of targeted Arab communities in a gesture of Arab-Jewish solidarity by local leaders like Mr. Milhem and Rabbi Ron Kronish, director of an Israeli inter-religious organization.Â
The coalition is made up of Jews, Muslims, and Christians,Â includingÂ Jewish settlers who shun the vandals in their midst.Â Their goal is toÂ remind Arabs and Jews alike of â€śanother voice, a voice of sanity and moderation," says Rabbi Kronish. Â Â
The group assists victims in handling bureaucratic proceduresÂ such as registering the attacks with the police and insurance companies. They say that they've made progress in raising awareness of the influence of prejudice toward Palestinians throughout Israeli society and increasing pressure on the Knesset to combat settler violence.Â
Appeal to Netanyahu
In a country plagued by rising apathy and prejudice, these are not simple tasks. On Sunday, Arab and Jewish leaders staged a modest demonstration outside the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Â
ThoughÂ IsraeliÂ officials have compared the Tag Mehir movement to terrorism, the government has yet to deliver on promises to halt its activities, the demonstrators said Sunday in a direct address to Mr. Netanyahu.Â
According to public interest attorney Einat Hurvitz,Â the lack of punishment is â€śa matter of political will, not capability,"Â pointing outÂ that the Shin Bet,Â the Israeli intelligence agency,Â is renowned for swiftly identifying and imprisoning Palestinian militants.
Last summer, the government said it would â€ścrack downâ€ť on Tag Mehir after a 22-year-old Orthodox Jewish Israeli was arrested for vandalizing a Christian monastery in the West Bank. On the ground though, little has changed, say critics.
Between 2005 and 2013, of the thousands of complaints relating to destruction of Palestinian olive groves in the West Bank, less than 3 percentÂ of cases were picked upÂ by district police, according to the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din.
The government has generallyÂ treatedÂ such incidents as random instances of teenage rowdiness, said Dr. Avinoam Rosenak, head of the Department of Jewish Thought at Hebrew University. But settlerÂ violence goes back to 2005, when Israel evacuated settlements and pulled troops from the Gaza Strip, he noted. Since then, right-wing settlers have vowed to uphold a â€śbalance of terrorâ€ť in which they would respond violently and immediately to every state move to restrict their presence.
A 2009 book published by a settler rabbi claimed that Judaism allows for the killing of non-Jews. Critics say this has bolstered the fringe movement and strained an already fragile relationship between the settler camp and the secular state.
Tag Meir director Gadi GvaryahuÂ warns that if the government continues its policy of impunity, the country is at enormous risk of lives, as well as integrity. â€śThe price is very heavy for all of us," heÂ says.Â