It takes quite extreme circumstances for an Israeli Defense Minister from the Likud Party and leaders of the Jewish settlements to condemn a group of Jewish settlers. It's even rarer for the minister to call their activities ‘terrorism.' Yet, this happened last week when a number of young masked settlers –members of the illusive Price Tag group– trespassed on the land of the Palestinian village of Qusra, near Nablus, attacking its farmers with sticks and stones.
Following the arrival of reinforcement from the village and a short chase, the settlers sought refuge in a nearby building, where they were kept by the villagers after being beaten. The incident could have ended much worse had it not been for a group of level-headed Palestinian villagers, who after detaining the settlers notified the Palestinian police and the Israeli military.
These settlers suffered double humiliation, first by being rescued and protected by those they regard as their sworn enemies the Palestinians, and secondly by being led to safety by the soldiers whom they often insult for being too ‘soft’ with the Palestinians.
Moshe Ya’alon, the Defense Minister, told the Israeli media that he would not hesitate to order the security forces to take firm actions to stop this group of hooligans from taking the law into their own hands and harming their innocent Palestinian neighbours. It is a task which the Israeli government has failed to do thus far.
The price of the 'Hilltop youths'
Some trace the origins of Tag Mechir, or price tag in Hebrew, back to the 2005 Gaza disengagement. At the time a number of Rabbis and religious educational institutions incited opposition against the government and the military, instructing soldiers to disobey orders to remove settlers. Despite mobilising thousands of supporters, many of them teenagers, they failed to win this battle.
The leniency shown by the Israeli authorities towards this bunch of Jewish brutes further tarnishes Israel’s reputation as a country which upholds law and order, and debases her moral fabric.Yossi Mekelberg
I was reporting from Gaza during the disengagement, and can still recall the warning of a leading settler. He told me that the moderates had failed to avert the removal of Jewish settlers, but next time the more extreme among the settlers would take control, resulting in more violence and even the use firearms.
Though I didn’t regard this person as particularly moderate, his message was very clear. It reflected the emergence of a rabbinical leadership which led to the creation of the ‘hilltops youth’– a group of youths who settled on the hilltops of the West Bank in defiance of the Israeli government. Furthermore, this group of extremists does not recognize the right of Palestinians to any land anywhere in the Land of Israel. The group assume their name Price Tag to reflect their approach of making anyone who opposes their ideology to pay a heavy price.
An upward trend in hostility
Since 2008, this kind of anarchic religious terrorism has increased considerably. The Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Palestinian territory (OCHA), has repeatedly warned that, “Violence by Israeli settlers undermines the physical security and livelihoods of Palestinians living under Israel’s prolonged occupation.”
The recent incident in the village of Qusra highlighted the alarming phenomenon of this extremism by relatively young settlers, who are guided and inspired by a number of Rabbis. Their distorted ideology is a lethal mixture of a radical religious approach combined with ultra-nationalism. In the past they did not hesitate to attack Israeli soldiers, who they accused of not sufficiently protecting, preventing them from illegally grabbing Palestinian land, and at times removing them from illegal outposts they occupy.
Earlier this week they sprayed graffiti on a military recruitment base in Jerusalem with their name Tag Mechir and distributed flyers calling for new recruits to refuse orders from their commanders. Their behaviour is in defiance of any logic, as they physically harass the very soldiers and commanders that protect them.
The thugs of Price Tag have reserved a majority of their vicious attacks for Palestinians in the occupied territories and inside Israel proper. This has included, according to human rights organizations and Israeli security forces’ reports, physical assaults, harassment, confiscation and damage of private property, preventing Palestinian farmers from accessing their own land and even attacks on livestock. In most cases such attacks take place following steps taken by the Israeli authorities which Price Tag deems damaging to the settlements project.
The Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem has documented egregious acts in which this group of settlers blocked roads, threw stones at cars and houses, trespassed on Palestinian villages and land, set fields and cars on fire, uprooted trees, and inflicted other damage to property.
Criticism from within the community
The fanaticism of Price Tag even attracted anger from some quarters within the settlement movement. Danny Dayan the former Chairman of the Yesah, the settlers representative body, was quoted as saying that the group's approach “…is a moral and tactical disaster ... It is in opposition to Jewish moral values and it damages the settlement enterprise.”
Moreover, Israel’s National Security Council (NSC) warned that the behaviour of Price Tag could inflame the conflict with the Palestinians. The NSC blamed other settlers, who are not part of Price Tag, for not assisting the security forces in stopping these acts and on many occasions aiding and abetting them in their cover up.
Nonetheless, condemnations are not enough. It is the duty of the Israeli authorities, as the occupying power in the West Bank, to maintain public order and guarantee the safety of the Palestinians in the West Bank, as stated by international law.
The daily realities of the occupation are harsh enough on the Palestinian population, but the terrorist actions by a minority of settlers makes them unbearable. The leniency shown by the Israeli authorities towards this bunch of Jewish brutes further tarnishes Israel’s reputation as a country which upholds law and order, and debases her moral fabric. Furthermore, the reluctance to make the perpetrators of these crimes against Palestinians to face the full weight of the law undermines the democratic foundations of the state of Israel.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.
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