Fureidis, Israel — The vandal who defaced the El Rahmi mosque in this Arab village came in the pre-dawn hours, after the last of the village men retired to their houses. When the sheikh came to open the mosque for morning prayers at 4 a.m., he found a Star of David spray-painted next to the front door along with the following message: “Close mosques instead of yeshivas.”
“We couldn’t believe something like this would ever happen in Furedis, because we live in coexistence with the Jewish towns around here,” said Mohsein Mohsein, one of the founders of the El Rahmi mosque who lives just steps away. “Those that did this want to wreck the relations between Jews and Arabs.”
The attack at the end of April was just one episode in an upsurge in hate crimes against Arab citizens of Israel and other non-Jewish targets in recent weeks. The targets have included churches, other mosques, a Muslim grave and an Arab-owned dental clinic.
After years of festering vigilantism in the West Bank by radial pro-settler groups against Palestinians and Israeli security forces — known in Israel as “price-tag” attacks — the violence is increasingly spilling over the border from the West Bank into towns and cities under full Israeli sovereignty.
Observers from outside of Israel have taken note: The new wave of attacks — typically hate graffiti and destruction of cars — has sparked international criticism of Israel for not blocking the vandals or making enough arrests. And it’s quickly becoming a diplomatic liability for the Jewish state: The U.S. State Department noted in a newly released annual report on terrorism that attacks inside the Green Line are on the rise.
On Sunday, representatives of the Roman Catholic Church in Israel lashed out at state authorities over a string of attacks against churches. In a press conference, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, told reporters that the hate crimes damage “the democracy that Israel purports to uphold,” and that they were “poisoning the atmosphere” in the Jewish state ahead of the visit of Pope Francis later this month. The Latin Patriarch questioned the resolve of Israeli law enforcement to bring perpetrators to trial, and also attacked Israel’s education system for allegedly sending the wrong message to kids about coexistence.
“What do they learn about those who are different from them in terms of religion and ethnic and national identity?” the Latin Patriarch asked. “What is the effect created by official discourse in Israel being a state for one group only?”
The attacks have also spurred yet another round of soul searching among Israelis — coming just weeks after pro-settler price-tag vigilantes destroyed an army outpost — about what the government should be doing to reverse the trend. Israel’s literary laureate, Amos Oz, even compared the perpetrators of the crimes to Europe’s neo-Nazis, kicking up a storm of protest from right-wing politicians.
Justice Minister Tzippi Livni, who is renewing a push to get the Israeli cabinet to define the attacks as “terrorism,” told IDF Radio that the core of the attacks could be found among hardline settlements whose residents don’t accept the authority of the state. “They want to prevent us from living here in a reasonable way, and oppose the values of the State of Israel that we believe in. They are also the ones who want to oppose an agreement” with the Palestinians.
What explains the latest public uproar over the spillover of pro-settler vigilantism into Israel? And is there a difference whether Israeli Jewish vigilantism is committed in the West Bank or inside Israel proper?
Yedidia Stern, a Bar-Ilan University law professor and a vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said there is indeed a qualitative difference between the two. Stressing that he opposes all forms of price-tag attacks, he explained that those occurring in the West Bank can be couched in terms of the need for self-defense in an insecure environment, while attacks inside the Green Line “are sheer racism.”
He said that such attacks can be seen as an outcome of the push by Israeli lawmakers to pass legislation strengthening the Jewish character of the country at the expense of Israel’s democratic values. As examples, Stern pointed to laws that exclude Arabs from getting government benefits and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent proposal to enshrine Israel’s definition as the Jewish nation state as part of its Basic Laws, essentially Israel’s constitution.
“When you are a Knesset member and you come up with any type of legislation that might be interpreted against Israeli Arabs, you have to realize that some people might take it a step further,” he said. “The Knesset is translating sentiment against Israeli Arabs into nationalist fundamentalism, [and] it’s translated by others into violence.”
The failure of Israeli law enforcement authorities to put a stop to the attacks is a cause for worry among Israeli Arabs that the hate crimes are condoned by the upper echelons of the Israeli government, said Mohammed Darawshe, co-director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, an Israeli nonprofit that promotes coexistence and equality among Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. He said that while Arab Israelis do appreciate government efforts to integrate them into the economy, that’s offset by the fallout from attacks.
“It’s saying you are good enough for the economy, but you are not good enough for social and political integration,” he said. “It creates confusions in the Arab community.”
Back near the El Rahmi mosque in Fureidis, the graffiti from two weeks ago is still visible near the mosque entrance. The plan is to give the walls a facelift to get the scrawl off. Meanwhile, the mosque decided for the first time in the wake of the attacks to post guards at night to ensure such an attack doesn’t recur.
Mohsein said that in the eyes of Muslims, desecration of a mosque is worse than murder, and that if villagers had caught the perpetrators on their own, the vandals might have been lynched.
That said, Mohsein notes with satisfaction expressions of support from the prime minister and cabinet members, as well as Jewish local council leaders. He proudly points to a solidarity banner in Arabic from the mayor of Acre. In the days following the attack, thousands packed Fureidis, both Arabs and Jews, to protest the price-tag attacks. Mohsein said he believes the perpetrators are small-time criminals and extremists who will eventually be caught.
The hardline Israelis “want to make an intifada,” he said. “It won’t make a difference, though, because we want to remain in coexistence.”