By Jonathan Cook
The interior of the mosque in the Bedouin village of Tuba Zangariya in northern Israel was left charred and blackened in early October, its stacks of Qur'ans burned beyond recognition. On the outside walls, scrawled in charcoal, were the words "Revenge" and "Price tag." The extremist wing of the settler movement had left its calling card.
As part of their "price tag" policy—a euphemism for a campaign of terror—the settlers have for the past two years been intermittently setting fire to mosques in the West Bank. For much of the past decade, they have been mounting regular pogrom-style attacks against isolated Palestinian villages, beating the inhabitants, setting fire to fields, uprooting olive trees, killing livestock and poisoning wells. At this time of year, during the olive season, armed gangs of settlers roam the West Bank assaulting Palestinians trying to harvest their crops.
But this was the first time the settlers had torched a mosque in Israel. A few days later, two cemeteries—one Muslim, one Christian—were vandalized in Jaffa, a mixed Jewish-Arab town next to Tel Aviv. The phrases "Price tag" and "Death to the Arabs" were sprayed on the headstones.
The "price tag" policy originally was devised as a way both to punish Palestinians for attacks on the settlements and to deter Israel from enforcing the rule of law on the settlers. On the rare occasions when the Israeli authorities have done so—by, for instance, removing a caravan from one of the more than 100 unauthorized settlement outposts dotted across the West Bank, or by arresting a lawbreaker—Palestinian villages have suffered the consequences.
More recently, however, the settlers' attacks have been intended to penalize Palestinians for the smallest political developments in peace talks. The hard-liners, in particular, are so blinkered by their religious-nationalist fundamentalism that they have failed to grasp the reality that Israel's leaders, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, voided the peace process long ago.
It was almost certainly not a coincidence that the two attacks inside Israel came a short time after Mahmoud Abbas submitted an application for statehood to the United Nations, in defiance of both Israel and the U.S. The Palestinian Authority president raised the stakes on Palestinian statehood—and so did the settlers.
The attacks marked a dramatic escalation of a recent campaign by Jewish extremists to expand their low-intensity war against West Bank Palestinians to include Israel's 1.5 million-strong Palestinian minority. These latter Palestinians, descendants of those who remained on their land during the 1948 war, have Israeli citizenship—even if of a very inferior kind—and comprise a fifth of Israel's population (a higher percentage than that of African Americans in the U.S.).
The settlers' goal, according to analysts, is to generate a civil war, creating the momentum toward an apocalyptic confrontation that unites the Jewish population behind the settlers' vision of a Greater Israel by pitting Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line against the "Chosen people."
According to Jafar Farah, director of Mossawa, an Arab advocacy organization inside Israel, "They [the settlers] want us to react. Then they can claim that the Arabs are trying to drive the Jews into the sea, and that no political solution is possible."
Since Israel's disengagement from Gaza in 2005, disillusionment has grown among the extremist settlers, many of whom are convinced that they must intensify their struggle to stop further concessions in the peace process. The settlements, armed by the Israeli army for decades, are in a position to wreak havoc.
In recent years the most militant elements among the settlers have been increasingly focusing their energies on Palestinian Arab communities in Israel, with the intention of stoking tensions and provoking conflict. They have used a two-fold approach.
In Israel's half a dozen so-called mixed cities, where Jews and Arabs live in close proximity, even if usually in separate neighborhoods, religious extremists have been taking over areas within traditional Arab enclaves. Typically, they have begun by setting up a hesder yeshiva, a seminary where young Jewish men combine religious studies with military service. Effectively, the yeshivas are armed encampments within Arab neighborhoods. The settlers then seek to intimidate and drive out Arab residents so they can take over nearby buildings and gradually spread out, in a variation of the established Zionist tactic of the tower-and-stockade used by the first European Jewish immigrants to take over land in Palestine during the British Mandate.
But the settlers also have targeted some of the largest and most independent Arab towns in Israel. In recent years Baruch Marzel, one of the leaders of an ultra-nationalist group of settlers based in and around the West Bank Palestinian city of Hebron, has been leading provocative settler marches—with Israeli police protection—into Arab communities such as Sakhnin and Umm al-Fahm.
Sakhnin has a reputation as one of the most nationalist Arab communities in Israel, famous for its role in resisting a large state-organized land grab in the Galilee in 1976. In clashes the army killed six protesters, an event commemorated every year by Palestinians as Land Day.
Umm al-Fahm, meanwhile, is notorious among Israeli Jews as the hometown of Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the increasingly influential Islamic Movement. For similar reasons, the city is the primary target of a plan put forward by Israel's far-right foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to swap Arab areas of Israel for the settlements in the West Bank under a future peace deal.
In this regard, the Jewish extremists chose the locations of their latest attacks carefully. They selected two Palestinian-Arab communities in Israel that have the opportunity and possible incentive to respond to the settlers' provocation with violence. Both communities are also distinctive for being surrounded by Jewish populations that have recently become rabidly anti-Arab.
Militant settlers hoped they were throwing a lit match on to a bonfire.
By contrast, Tuba Zangariya is one of a few fervently "loyal" Arab communities in Israel. While many Bedouin were expelled during the 1948 war that created Israel, the tribes of Tuba and Zangariya were given an area next to Jewish communities as a reward for fighting alongside Israel's armed forces.
Deprived of jobs and facing the same discrimination suffered by the rest of the country's Arab minority, many young men there still serve, like their grandfathers and fathers, in the Israeli army. After the mosque attack, a community leader boasted to an Israeli reporter: "We were among the founders of the state of Israel."
But as news of the mosque's desecration spread, enraged youths burned government buildings, fired their army-issue rifles into the air and clashed with police, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades. The police claimed their tough approach was needed to stop the youths of Tuba from marching on to Rosh Pina and Safed, two Jewish towns only a few kilometers away.
Anti-Arab sentiments in Safed, in particular, have reached a boiling point under the town's chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu, a municipal employee who has been leading a campaign to expel Safed's small Arab population, mostly students attending the local college. He has accused young Arab men of seeking to "corrupt" the town's Jewish women, and along with dozens of other rabbis signed a letter last year threatening reprisals against Jews who rented properties to non-Jews. There have been sporadic assaults on Arabs in Safed ever since.
The despoiling of the graves in Jaffa could have triggered a spiral of violence as well. A day after the attack, Molotov cocktails were thrown at a synagogue in the town.
Jaffa, once the commercial hub of Palestine, is now little more than a seaside suburb of Tel Aviv containing one of the most deprived Arab communities in the country. Most of the residents are descendants either of Palestinians forced out of their Jaffa homes at gunpoint in 1948 and corralled into a small neighborhood named Ajami, or of poor Palestinian laborers brought from the rest of the country to help build Tel Aviv.
Jaffa's Arab population, still penned up in Ajami and living precariously as tenants in neglected properties confiscated by the state decades ago, were brought to global attention in 2009 in an Oscar-nominated film called simply "Ajami." It portrayed the neighborhood as a breeding ground for crime and violence.
However, it did not show two further indignities currently being suffered by Ajami's Arab residents: a gentrification program that is demolishing areas of the neighborhood to attract wealthy Jews who prefer a beachfront residence to overcrowded Tel Aviv (see July 2008 Washington Report, p. 24); and the gradual infiltration of Jewish religious extremists, who have switched location from the settlements to Jaffa and other mixed cities.
In this pressure-cooker atmosphere, the graves' vandals presumably hoped they could fuel the mounting antagonisms on both sides of Jaffa's ethnic divide.
Significantly, the attacks inside Israel suggested that militant factions among the settlers are now committed to a strategy that blurs the Green Line—the pre-1967 border between Israel and the occupied territories—in a way designed to make the citizenship status of Palestinians inside Israel irrelevant. More terror attacks on the minority can be expected.
An editorial in Israel's Haaretz newspaper noted that the settlers were exploiting the prevailing anti-Arab mood that has been generated both by two years of overtly discriminatory legislation from the Israeli parliament and by growing numbers of rabbis espousing trenchantly racist views. Reports of the arson attack on the mosque in Tuba Zangariya spawned anti-Arab graffiti across Israel.
The editorial also pointed out that such incitement and violence posed a severe challenge to Israel's professed democratic credentials and its image internationally. That is why Israel's political leaders, including Netanyahu, and its chief rabbis condemned the attacks with a haste and vehemence entirely missing from their reactions to Jewish terror aimed at Palestinians in the occupied territories.
The gauntlet thrown down by the settlers is directed mainly toward the security services, especially the Shin Bet internal intelligence agency. The police and Shin Bet have a woeful track record of solving crimes against Palestinians committed by the settlers, despite the increasing use of video cameras by Palestinians to record the attacks. The price tag campaign of recent years has come at almost no cost to the settlers.
The burning of the mosque in Tuba Zangariya neatly illustrated the double standards. A Jewish youth from a West Bank settlement was arrested a few hours after the attack, but released days later for lack of evidence. Meanwhile, the police arrested more than 20 youths from Tuba for firing their weapons into the air, and vowed they would be making many further arrests.
In September the Shin Bet claimed it was struggling to track down those responsible for the price tag attacks because they were religious zealots who had organized into a network of discrete terror cells to avoid infiltration and surveillance.
Yossi Melman, Haaretz's security correspondent, was dismissive of the reasoning: "The Islamic Hezbollah [in Lebanon] and Hamas organizations are also religious zealots. They, too, study their enemy, but nonetheless the Shin Bet and the intelligence agencies manage to infiltrate them and obtain accurate intelligence information about them."
The few Jewish extremists who had been arrested for attacks, Melman added, benefited from "the lenience of judges" and from "incompetence that appears to have been deliberate on the part of the police and the army."
A more probable explanation for the Shin Bet's failure is that its much-neglected "Jewish section," which investigates the settlers' security crimes and is overshadowed by a larger and better-funded "Arab section," draws many of its officers from among the ranks of the settlers.
The impunity granted the settlers is having serious consequences inside Israel, as even the Shin Bet has begun to notice. It has emboldened the extremists to widen their operations of late to include not only the Palestinian minority but also Israeli Jewish peace activists and, on a few occasions, Israeli soldiers.
A few days before the attack on Tuba Zangariya's mosque, a large group of West Bank settlers from Anatot, close to Jerusalem, assaulted and terrorized a group of left-wing Jews who had come to support a Palestinian couple trying to work their land. Many of Anatot's settlers work in the security services, and video shows police officers who were called to the scene standing by as the peace activists are beaten and some of the women sexually abused.
Despite its failure to trace the culprits of such crimes, the Shin Bet has warned that the most fanatical elements in the settler movement need restraining if there is not to be a rapid escalation of violence on both sides of the Green Line. In August it ordered 12 youths from Yitzhar, a notorious settlement close to Nablus, barred from the West Bank. A month later the government ignored the Shin Bet's advice to the Education Ministry to cut funding to Yitzhar's yeshiva, whose rabbis recently published a book advocating the murder of non-Jews, including children.
Because Israel's politicians so far have shown great reluctance to act against the militant settlers, their campaign of violence against Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line is sure to intensify.
Jonathan Cook is a journalist based in Nazareth and a winner of this year's Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His most recent book is Disappearing Palestine.