'Price Tag' Crime Crosses the Green Line Into Israel

Hate crimes have crossed over due to more efficient policing, but also because perpetrators know it is in Israel that they must battle for the public's mind and heart.

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Graffiti found on mosque in Fureidis: "Close mosques, not yeshivas" Credit: Haaretz
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

The recent wave of nationalist hate crimes in the north shows that eradicating such crimes is much harder than the police originally thought. The perpetrators don’t belong to a hierarchical organization like the Israel Scouts. They have no headquarters, budget or bank account. Rather, the so-called “price tag” movement is an idea.

Invented in the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar in 2008, the hate crimes known to Israelis as “price tag” attacks have since spread rapidly, mainly because they are so easy to replicate. All you need is a racist ideology, a spirit of adventure and a few dozen shekels for spray paint, gasoline or other flammable material and a lighter. The rules of the game are simple: Every attack on settler interests should draw a response. If the government seizes a synagogue in Yitzhar, for instance, the price taggers will respond. They don’t need any orders or guidance; inspiration can be found just by visiting the right forums on Facebook.

Price tag attacks were originally concentrated in the West Bank, but they have expanded substantially inside Israel over the past year, for several reasons. First, advocates of such violent behavior understood that with all due respect to Palestinian villages near Yitzhar or Shiloh, the battle over the public’s mind and heart will be decided in Israel. Additionally, some extremist settlers relocated to Israel to better spread their doctrine of price tag attacks, boycotting Arab businesses and disobeying orders to harm the settlements.

In some places – like Jerusalem, where violence is common anyway – these ideas have been enthusiastically received and have led to an upsurge in violent incidents. The price tag movement also has offshoots in the Galilee, around the city of Safed, which has large religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox populations. But in the absence of any identifiable suspects for the recent attacks in the north, it’s impossible to know whether these were merely copycat attacks, inspired by reading the news, or attacks perpetrated by veterans of similar actions in the West Bank.

Yet another reason why such attacks have increasingly moved over the Green Line is the intensive pressure being exerted by the Shai District Police on violent activity in the West Bank. A year ago, the district created a special unit for nationalist crimes, with an enormous budget. And over the last few months, this unit has been showing results.

The unit’s strategy is to target the most problematic right-wing extremists and simply wear them down. Sometimes, the police’s behavior borders on abuse of their authority. Every time they arrest a known extremist, they ask the courts to remand him, even if there’s no actual reason to keep him in jail. Whenever they indict such a person, they ask that he be jailed until the end of his trial, no matter how trivial the offense.

The cumulative effect of this war of attrition is that right-wing activists are being arrested frequently and kept in jail or under house arrest for sizable chunks of time. In addition to driving some of them out of the West Bank, the police have thereby succeeded in reestablishing deterrence.

Another element of the unit’s strategy is filing indictments for attacks on Palestinians. Granted, it has yet to solve a single arson attack on mosques or cars in Palestinians villages (the one case that was solved, in February, was cracked by the Shin Bet security service). But it has succeeded in filing several significant indictments against right-wing extremists who assaulted Palestinians.

Contrary to the oft-heard accusation, police are actually highly motivated to solve such crimes. The problem is that the quality of their investigations usually ranges from mediocre to embarrassing. When they don’t catch the suspects red-handed, the police’s work seems to consist mainly of issuing press statements. Examinations of the Shai District’s investigations against Palestinians and settlers alike consistently reveal shoddy, negligent probes in which even the most basic investigative tasks are often left undone.

Consequently, no one should expect the police to solve even 10 percent of hate crime cases. Yet even solving two or three would be enough to significantly damage the price tag movement – at least until next time.

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