In a place where real-life events can literally explode across the landscape at any given moment, words have become a weapon. And one of the most potent projectiles is the term “price tag” attack.
Hate crimes against Palestinians became known as price tag attacks late last decade, after Jewish extremists started spray-painting the Hebrew words “tag mehir” (“price tag”) on vandalized Palestinian property. The message was clear: Any action taken by the Israeli government against Jewish settlements, whether it be the evacuation of illegal outposts or the demolition of individual homes, would trigger a reprisal – a price. That price could be vandalism or criminal damage, or it could be physical – even lethal – violence, usually directed against Palestinians.
Last week’s deadly attack on a Palestinian family in the West Bank followed the demolition of two illegal structures in the settlement of Beit El less than 48 hours earlier. Early Friday morning, after settlers had failed in their attempts to thwart the bulldozers, two homes in Duma were torched, killing an 18-month-old boy and leaving his parents and 4-year-old brother in critical condition. Next to the blackened homes, a graffiti message in Hebrew read “Revenge,” accompanied by a Star of David.
For Israelis to label this horrific act a price tag attack reveals how the Palestinians have been dehumanized, and enables further violence against them. “Price tag” is a euphemism for direct, violent attacks that are meant to both injure and instill terror in the hearts of their victims.
To use the words “price tag” – a benign term taken from the well-lit aisles of a supermarket – is to divest the act from its inherent violence.
By contrast, attacks perpetrated against Israeli civilians are always called terror attacks, often being described in monstrous, bestial terms by Israeli officials: “Cutting off the head of the terror snake” and “tentacles of terror" are commonly used metaphors.
The idea is that when Israeli civilians are targeted, their attackers are non-human, bloodthirsty and devoid of rational thought or decency. But when Israelis target Palestinian civilians, these attacks – however violent – are still treated as if they were conducted by rational people.
By calling them “price tag” attacks, we are saying the most important aspect isn’t the violence and its effect on the Palestinians, but that the perpetrators sought to deter the Israeli government from evacuating settlements.
So, when Israelis are attacked, it’s because irrational murderers with no regard for the sanctity of human life are resorting to the lowest of deeds. But when Israelis do likewise, it’s because they have a clear strategy in mind. One attacker is treated as a sane, albeit extremist, person; the other as a predator.
When we call it a “price tag” attack, we are treating a violent act as a conversation between Israeli extremists and their government – one in which Palestinian victims are merely a means to an end. These Palestinian victims are being used to make a point: one that certainly concerns them, but which is addressed elsewhere.
It is Palestinian homes being burnt, Palestinian property vandalized and Palestinian family members attacked. But the point of it all is a Hebrew message that’s intended to be read by other Israelis, flashing from the pages of their newspapers and on their TV screens: This is what happens if you mess with us.
It isn't a coincidence that words spray-painted on West Bank walls have become a hallmark of these attacks, since their perpetrators may not even view them as “attacks” but as some twisted sort of text message. “Revenge,” “price tag,” “messiah” all words directed to the Hebrew speakers on the other side of the Green Line.
Those who continue to use the words “price tag” justify these acts of symbolic and actual violence – if only by continuing to describe a reality in which Palestinians and their belongings are used as nothing more than pen and paper.
We would be best served by standing not on the side of violence, but with the victims of this violence, whoever those victims may be. Otherwise, we will be letting Ali Saad Dawabsheh, who lost his life in last Friday's arson attack, become nothing more than a horrifying letter.