Israel must define its policy towards the Jewish extremists behind an ongoing wave of anti-Arab attacks in order to be able to effectively stamp out the phenomenon, experts said on Wednesday.
Debate over the rising tide of hate crimes euphemistically known as “price tag” attacks went into overdrive after about 30 cars were vandalised on Tuesday at Abu Gosh, an Arab village near Jerusalem long held up as a model of coexistence.
The brazen attack, which was accompanied by racist Hebrew graffiti, shocked Israel and made headlines across most of the country’s main newspapers, spawning heated debate about why the perpetrators are almost never caught or prosecuted.
Those behind the attack are believed to be Jewish extremists, with police saying many of them were under age.
“The State of Israel has not yet decided how it wants to deal with this… but if (this phenomenon) carries on long-term, there will be repercussions and people will die,” warned Menahem Landau, former head of the Jewish unit within the Shin Bet domestic security agency.
“What will we say then? That it was only graffiti?” he said in an interview with army radio.
Price tag attacks usually involve racist graffiti, damage to vehicles, the destruction of large numbers of olive trees, and arson attempts on mosques. Christian churches and cemeteries have also been increasingly targeted.
If those behind such attacks were defined as belonging to a “terror organisation” it would give the Shin Bet a much freer hand to deal with them, he said.
“The police are perhaps not doing enough but it’s not only their problem, it’s a problem of the entire system,” Shlomo Aharonishki, former head of Israel police, told the radio.
“The government must decide that it wants to deal with the problem and set a much clearer definition of those who carry out such acts, which will allow the police, the Shin Bet and the courts fight against this phenomenon.”
The price tag campaign was initially started in the West Bank, with extremist settlers attacking Palestinian land, property and mosques in response to government moves to dismantle unauthorised settlement outposts.
But it quickly spread — both geographically and in terms of the targets — and soon began to include attacks on Arab communities inside Israel, on left-wing activists, churches and Christian sites.
On rare occasion, there have even been attacks on Israeli soldiers and vehicles over their involvement in taking down settler outposts.
Earlier this week, Israel’s security cabinet moved to increase the powers of the security establishment to crack down on the phenomenon by declaring that those involved belonged to an “illegal organisation”.
But crucially, the cabinet made no move to classify such incidents as “acts of terror” or the perpetrators as “terrorists” — a move Justice Minister Tzipi Livni is pushing for.
Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the attack on Abu Gosh, he has reportedly opposed the idea of labelling the perpetrators as belonging to a “terror organisation” saying they could not be compared to Palestinian militants.
Official figures show that 2012, police opened 623 files on price tag incidents, arrested 200 people and served 123 indictments in connection with such attacks.
And since the start of this year, 76 people had been arrested and 31 indicted over price tag violence, police spokeswoman Luba Samri told AFP on Wednesday.
But there have been few convictions, with Samri saying the issue was made much more complicated by the fact the vast majority of those arrested were minors.
“It really complicates the juridical process,” she said.
The justice ministry was unable to give precise figures about convictions.
Nidal Othman, director of The Coalition Against Racism, believes such attacks are coordinated by a secret organisation based in a settlement in the West Bank.
“As long as Israel doesn’t do anything against the extremist rabbis in the West Bank who inspire those behind the price tag policy, the problem will never be resolve,” he told a parliamentary commission last week.
Commentator Ben-Dror Yemini called on the government act.
“There are rabbis who incite and there are illegal settlement outposts, which give rise to hooliganism, and they receive government funding. These are the hotbeds of hatred and incitement,” he wrote in Maariv newspaper.
“Those who demand, and rightfully so, to stop funding for Palestinian incitement cannot continue funding places where the same incitement develops.
“So with all due respect for all the condemnations (from top politicians)… it is not enough to condemn. You are the decision-makers,” he wrote. “You should take action.”