Ministers nix bill defining ‘Price Tag’ attacks as terror

As extremist Jewish violence against Palestinians grows, many in government, Shin Bet are seeking stronger enforcement powers

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Graffiti reading "We will avenge your spilled blood, Qusra" on the walls of a mosque that was set ablaze in an apparent "price tag" attack in the Palestinian village of Deir Istiya in January 2014. (photo credit: Zakariya/Rabbis for Human Rights)
Graffiti reading "We will avenge your spilled blood, Qusra" on the walls of a mosque that was set ablaze in an apparent "price tag" attack in the Palestinian village of Deir Istiya in January 2014. (photo credit: Zakariya/Rabbis for Human Rights)

Amid a recent spike in reports of settler vandalism and violence in the West Bank, a key cabinet committee has rejected a bill that aimed to define Price Tag attacks as acts of terrorism.

The proposed legislation, sponsored by Labor MK Eitan Cabel, would amend the legal definition of “terror” to all acts of nationalistic, religious, or ideological intent and would make the penalties for these attacks far more severe.

While the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted against granting government support for the bill on Sunday, Cabel plans to bring the measure to a floor vote in the Knesset plenum on Wednesday.

“There is an absurd situation wherein a bunch of criminals place themselves above the law, while the hands of the state and the security forces are tied in terms of appropriate and deterrent punishment,” Cabel said. “We cannot accept these actions, not when they are perpetrated against Jews, and not when they are perpetrated against Arabs.”

He also said that he intends to introduce another bill under which perpetrators, in extreme cases, could be liable for punishments of up to 20 years in prison.

The latest bill comes several months after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck down a recommendation by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and the Shin Bet security services to apply the designation of terror to Price Tag assailants. Netanyahu dismissed the recommendation in June, but agreed to define the attackers as “unlawful combatants,” effectively granting the security services increased surveillance powers on suspects and putting in place additional investigative and enforcement policies that are not permitted with ordinary citizens.

Israeli officials have increasingly referred to anti-Arab Price Tag attacks as terrorism in recent months.

“The unacceptable trend, known as ‘Price Tag,’ is in my opinion terror in every sense of the word, and we are acting and will continue to act against the perpetrators, firmly and with zero tolerance, in order to eradicate it,” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said on January 8. “It is a stain on Israel and it undermines the settlement enterprise.”

The term “Price Tag” refers to acts of violence and vandalism usually performed against Palestinians and their property and typically carried out by Jewish nationalists as retribution for government moves. They have become increasingly common in recent years. Mosques, churches, dovish Israeli groups and Israeli military bases have been targeted in such attacks.

UN figures published last week indicate that the annual rate of Jewish extremist attacks against Palestinians has almost quadrupled over the past eight years, including cutting down trees, defacing mosques and churches and beating Palestinian farmers.

The torching of a mosque near the settlement of Ariel last week drew harsh condemnation from the US State Department.

“We believe that such hateful and provocative actions against a place of worship are never justified,” State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said in a press briefing. “We look to Israeli law enforcement officials to quickly investigate and bring to justice the perpetrators of this attack.”

The events leading up to the most recent attack began when troops uprooted olive trees planted on private Palestinian land by settlers from the Esh Kodesh outpost in early January.

Later that day, about 20 Israelis moved toward nearby villages, including Qusra. Palestinians said the settlers damaged olive trees, and were caught by villagers after a stone-throwing clash and held by them for more than two hours before being handed to the army. Many of the settlers were beaten.

Footage of the settlers, surrounded by an angry crowd, led the TV news in Israel that day, with commentators saying serious bloodshed was averted by local Palestinians who shielded the settlers. The settlers, meanwhile, insisted that they were hiking and denied any connection to violence or vandalism against Palestinians.

There have been a series of so-called Price Tag attacks in apparent retaliation for the Qusra incident.

On January 10, vandals cut down 30 trees in the Palestinian town of Kafr Qasim and left a sign reading “Greetings, Esh Kodesh.”

A day earlier, slogans such as “Death to the Arabs,” “Revenge,” “Jews wake up,” and “Esh Kodesh” were sprayed on a building in the village of Sinjil, near Ramallah.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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