Just weeks before Pope Francis visits the Holy Land, a string of racist attacks on Christian and Muslim sites is forcing Israel to reconsider how it should handle Jewish extremism.
The Roman Catholic church itself demanded Israel take action after Hebrew graffiti reading “Death to Arabs and Christians and to everyone who hates Israel” was daubed on its Notre Dame headquarters on the seamline between east and west Jerusalem on Monday.
“Mere coincidence?” said a statement by Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, noting the attack on a property owned by the Holy See took place just weeks before the arrival of the pope.
“The bishops are very concerned about the lack of security and lack of responsiveness from the political sector, and fear an escalation of violence,” it said, noting there had been “no gesture of solidarity or condemnation” from Israel’s political establishment.
“We feel neither safe nor protected.”
Israel is facing mounting pressure to rein in a spiralling wave of so-called “price tag” hate crimes by Jewish extremists targeting Arab Israelis and Palestinians, with new racist vandalism attacks being reported on an almost daily basis.
Despite hundreds of arrests, no one has been successfully prosecuted.
Israeli security officials believe the latest attacks have been the work of around 100 people, most of them activists from Yitzhar, a bastion of far-right settlers in the northern West Bank, Haaretz newspaper reported.
“Hate crime incidents against Israeli Arabs and Palestinians have risen steeply since April 2, when the army destroyed buildings in Yitzhar,” sources told the paper.
The attacks initially targeted Palestinian property in response to state-sponsored moves against unauthorised settlement outposts, but the scope has expanded considerably to become a much-more generalised expression of racism against non-Jews.
– ‘Atmosphere of hatred’ –
On Thursday, the daughter of late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a Jewish extremist in 1995, said the atmosphere was of great concern.
“The current climate reminds me of the atmosphere of hatred that reigned during the days leading up to my father’s death,” Dalia Rabin told army radio.
Police have made scores of arrests but there have been no successful prosecutions for the attacks and the government has come up under mounting pressure to authorise the Shin Bet internal security agency to step in.
“It is the government’s intention to use administrative detention against those carrying out so-called ‘price tag’ attacks,” Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch told army radio on Wednesday.
Administrative detention allows for suspects to be held without trial for up to six months. Such orders, which can be renewed indefinitely by a court decision, are almost exclusively used against Palestinians suspected of security-related offences.
Aharonovitch subsequently met with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the attorney-general, and top police and Shin Bet officials to discuss ways of tackling the phenomenon.
At the meeting, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said he would ask the courts to stiffen penalties against perpetrators of hate crimes, pledging to personally follow up on such cases, Haaretz reported.
And the two ministers agreed to ask the security cabinet once again to consider branding price tag attacks as “acts of terrorism”.
A similar request presented to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in December 2011 was turned down.
But since then, the scope of the attacks has grown significantly. And with the pope due to arrive for a two-day trip on May 25, Israel is looking to ensure the visit goes off without a hitch.
“Security measures are being taken and prepared for this important visit of the pope, units are training and there is liaison between security here and (Vatican) security,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP.
“We would do anything to prevent any incident whatsoever, on any level, be it criminal or terrorist among all the different communities.”
Last month, the US State Department for the first time included a mention of “price tag” violence in its 2013 Country Reports on Terrorism.
The move was not well received in Israel, with police saying such incidents could not be compared with bloody nationalist attacks.