Tel Aviv — Nearly 20 years ago, Israel outlawed the far-right Kach organization as a terrorist group in the wake of the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in which 29 Palestinian worshipers were killed and 125 were wounded. A Kach member, Baruch Goldstein, carried out the attack, and was then beaten to death by those who survived.
For the first time since then, Israel’s government is seriously considering a similar designation for Jews involved in so-called “price tag” vigilante attacks on Palestinians, the army and left-wing Israelis. But in a country that associates bus bombings with terrorism, the move is sparking a debate about just what is meant by the term.
The unusual measure — which is expected to come up for a cabinet vote in the coming weeks — follows an upsurge in price tag incidents such as the defacing of West Bank mosques or the spray-painting of threats on cars.
The move is being spearheaded by Justice Minister Tzippi Livni, who is worried that the attacks are increasingly being directed at Israeli citizens, and that the targeting of Palestinians could eventually spark deadly violence in the West Bank.
“It’s a crime that is aimed at influencing the policy of the government — it is not just criminal,” said a Justice Ministry official who was not authorized to speak in public about motions before the cabinet. “We are talking about activities that are liable to spark violence with the Arabs in the territories.”
Just last week, at the end of the 30-day mourning period for the murder of a settler, nine cars were torched in the West Bank while seven cars in an Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem had the word “revenge” scrawled on them.
That likely prompted a statement on Sunday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemning acts targeting “innocent” Palestinians and Israeli Arabs as immoral. It is unclear, however, whether Netanyahu will support the notion of formally calling the vandalism terrorism as called for by Livni.
Some political analysts say that the prime minister doesn’t want to run afoul of the settlers by linking such attacks as terrorism. Others say that he probably doesn’t consider incidents of graffiti serious terrorism.
“Netanyahu’s reason for being is fighting terrorism, whether it’s terror from a bus bombing or from Gaza,” said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli pollster. “Terror, in his mind, is a different thing. It’s something that threatens a sovereign state through non-conventional means. But this is graffiti on a wall.”
But for one Israeli Arab human rights activist who found her car in Jerusalem this week spray-painted with “revenge” and its tires deflated, the feeling is of intimidation. “I’m really afraid,” she said.
“Price tag” refers to a type of attack increasingly initiated in recent years by extremist settler groups as retribution for a Palestinian attack or the removal of an outpost by the Israeli army.
Though such attacks are usually acts of vandalism, experts on the phenomenon say the goal is to influence Israel’s government to adopt the position of those carrying out the attacks — whether that means taking a harder line on policing the Palestinians or allowing more settlement growth.
A string of attacks on West Bank mosques and the failure to indict perpetrators has been a source of embarrassment at home and abroad. The violence has also been directed at dovish activist groups like Peace Now.
“It’s not terrorism with a capital T,” said Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now. “But the rationale behind it is terrorism: to create a balance of deterrence with the Israeli government. … I view it as a national security threat. They can ignite big fires, particularly when you talk about attacks on mosques.”
Amid the debate, the Israeli Defense Ministry confirmed this week that the government has established a special panel to consider compensation for Palestinians who have been victims of hate attacks and price tag actions.
But it turns out that only a precious few knew about the panel’s existence — and only several thousand dollars have been given out so far in compensation. Human rights advocates were skeptical and called it a joke.
Predictably, settlers and their allies expressed discomfort about designating the price tag activists as terrorists. Danny Dayan, a former settler council chairman, said while that price tag actions were reprehensible, they shouldn’t be considered acts of terrorism but rather as hooliganism of a few young misfits and not associated with a group.
Writing on Facebook, Naftali Bennett, the chairman of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, called the acts vandalism, and said that if Israel designates price tag attacks as terror, then it should also recognize violence by Bedouins in southern Israel in the same way.
Israeli human rights activists — who generally agree with calling the attacks terrorism — are ambivalent about whether such a designation will help or hinder the efforts to combat price tag attacks.
“Talk of declaring it as terrorism is important in the educational sense,” said Michael Sfard, a human rights lawyer. “These acts are acts of violence and intimidation meant to secure political results, against civilians — this is the definition of terrorism.”
Sfard said he thinks of price tag attacks more as hate crimes than as terrorism.
He said that he opposed giving law-enforcement agencies stronger legal tools to pursue interrogations, suggesting that it would hurt civil liberties. He alleged that Israeli authorities have enough means at their disposal, but don’t have the will to pursue the perpetrators.
“The whole debate is an attempt to hide the huge failure of law-enforcement authorities in providing effective defense to Palestinian communities. The problem is not with the legal tools, the problem is with the will to use them,” Sfard said.
Other activists alleged that the focus on price-tag attacks obscures worse incidents of violence against Palestinians that isn’t considered retaliatory.
The human rights activist from Jerusalem said that while the Israeli police didn’t know how to define the crime, she hopes the stepped-up focus on price tag attacks will enable the police to apprehend the perpetrators — something rare until now.
“I don’t know what will happen. I want the people caught. I know it was caught on film. I think they can find them. The problem is whether they want to find them.”