The small Palestinian village of Burqa near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank was once again targeted by Israeli settlers this Saturday — the latest so-called “price tag” attack committed by settlers to avenge outpost demolitions by the Israeli government.
The village has been repeatedly attacked by such “price tag” militants. Last year, two cars went up in flames, and three months later the mosque in Burqa was burned, with the words “Mitzpe Yitzhar” (an outpost near Nablus) and “War” painted on its charred walls.
On Saturday, several cars were damaged and graffiti references to a Migron outpost left on the crime scene. Israeli police say they are “canvassing the area.”
Despite the widespread coverage of “price tag” violence, mainstream media outlets habitually neglect the pivotal role of the Israeli government in breeding these attacks. There is a particular tendency by outlets such as the BBC, Agence France Presse and The Financial Times to limit Israeli government responsibility for “price tag” attacks to inadequate police investigations of settler crimes. This, however, only paints half the picture.
For years, the Israeli government has provided structural financial support to its most radical settler communities. This includes funds for the construction of outposts, which even the Israeli high court has confirmed as illegal under Israeli law.
The scheduled demolition of some of these outposts triggered waves of “price tag” setter attacks that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu has chosen not to prosecute. Instead, it has opted to “retroactively” legalize outposts that face demolition and build new settlements for outpost inhabitants when an outpost demolition remains inevitable.
Through these policies, the state is giving perpetrators of “price tag” violence exactly what they want: more legalized outposts, more land and the establishment of entirely new settlements. The government does not simply allow acts of “price tag” violence to happen, but it rewards them too.
Israel’s abysmal record
From the beginning, the Israeli government helped fund, plan and construct the supposedly unauthorized outposts that currently house radical settlers and whose upcoming demolitions are triggering “price tag” attacks.
Outposts are essentially new settlements established without official authorization since the Oslo accords were signed in the early 1990s. Unlike official Israeli settlements, outposts are considered illegal under Israeli law (Israel is resorting to sophistry here as all Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are illegal under international law). Despite their illegality, however, approximately 100 new outposts have been established across the West Bank since the Oslo accords were signed.
The official claim that the State of Israel did not fund these unauthorized outposts was shattered by a 2005 report commissioned by the government itself. Authored by Israeli attorney Talia Sasson, the report meticulously outlines how the establishment of outposts was based on a web of government agencies and settlers committing institutionalized violations of Israeli law (The Sasson Report, March 2005).
Sasson described the scope of outpost-related activity by government officials as “a bold violation of laws done by certain state authorities, public authorities, regional councils in Judea, Samaria and Gaza and settlers, while false [sic] presenting an organized legal system” (Judea and Samaria is the name Israel uses for the West Bank).
It is therefore not surprising that the Israeli government’s record of enforcing its own laws against “unauthorized” outpost construction has been abysmal. Between 1997 and 2007, for example, the Israeli Civil Administration — which oversees the occupation of the West Bank — issued 3,449 demolition orders against settler structures built illegally under Israeli law, 1,541 of which concerned construction in outposts.
Of the 3,449 demolition orders only 107 evacuations, or 3 percent, were executed, the rest were left to expire (“Illegal Construction in the Settlements: The List of Demolition Orders” [PDF], Peace Now, December 2007).
Since 1998, Palestinian landowners assisted by human rights organizations in Israel have turned to the Israeli high court, asking it to order the state to implement its own outstanding demolition orders against settler structures in the outposts.
In recent years, a number of these petitions have finally triggered high court demolition orders against several outposts, including two high-profile cases against Migron and Ulpana (for an overview of other high court petitions against outposts, see “Torpedoing the Two State Solution: Summary of 2011 in the Settlements,” Peace Now, January 2012).
Although the scheduled demolitions only affect a fraction of all outposts, a group of radical settlers devised a violent strategy called “price tag” to halt current demolitions and deter future threats to the outposts and settlements.
The goal is to deter outpost demolitions and other threats to the settlement enterprise by placing a “price tag” on every threat to the settlement enterprise. This “price tag” predominantly involves attacks on Palestinian communities and includes the burning of mosques, cars and olive trees, physical abuse of Palestinians and roadblocks. In one case, a homemade rocket was fired from the Yitzhar settlement into a neighboring Palestinian village.
Price tag militants believe these provocative attacks could trigger Palestinian counter-attacks, which would unravel the security situation in the West Bank and destabilize the Israeli government. The logic goes that this deterrent threat will force the Israeli government to capitulate to settler demands in order to dissuade settlers from carrying out further price tag attacks.
The settlers’ message is clear: destroy our outposts and we will destabilize the region. As evidence of their ability to provoke Palestinian communities, settlers burn mosques and churches, vandalize cemeteries and leave religious hate speech sprayed on walls in the heart of Palestinian villages.
To ensure the government gets the message, “price tag” graffiti is left on vandalized sites, its contents revealing the racist ideology that drives the perpetrators. The graffiti left behind during several attacks on 14 December 2011, including the burning of a mosque, read “Price Tag,” “Camaraderie Mitzpe Yitzhar,” “Pay the Price,” “Friends of Yitzhar” and several insults to the prophet Muhammad. Palestinian villagers were left to clean up the mess after settlers used their property and religious sites as billboards expressing a message to the Israeli state.
The Israeli government bears responsibility for these “price tag” attacks. For years it has systemically aided and rewarded violations of Israeli law by its most radical and racist settler communities. Adding to its egregious record and compounding the problem is a lack of law enforcement towards Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Israeli politicians pay lip service to the idea of law enforcement, but in reality the Israeli government has constantly failed to crack down on acts of settler violence, producing a culture of impunity in which racist violence thrives.
Failure to investigate
The BBC recently aired Price Tag Wars, a 30-minute exposé on price tag violence. Typical of the BBC’s uncritical coverage, Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev was allowed to claim without challenge: “The prime minister, the president, the speaker of our parliament, have all spoken out very forcefully when there is vigilante violence, and the orders have gone out to the police and the security services to have no tolerance for this phenomenon whatsoever.”
Israeli police investigations after settler attacks are notoriously inadequate. In fact, there are no known convictions of “price tag” perpetrators to date, according to Israeli media (“Tag Meir voices Christian solidarity against vandals,” The Jerusalem Post, 5 October).
This is part of a larger pattern of government leniency towards settlers. According to the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din, 90 percent of the investigations of settler violence against Palestinians it monitored were closed on grounds that reflected a failure on the part of the police to conduct an adequate investigation into the allegations (“Law Enforcement upon Israeli civilians in the West Bank,” 16 February 2011 [PDF]).
Some “price tag” cases are intentionally botched by Israeli investigators. At least seven villages targeted by price tag vandalism have reported Israeli investigators arriving with buckets of paint to remove the price tag graffiti left by settlers, even destroying evidence during investigations of desecrated mosques. In a 2011 UN report, one man from Einabus, a village near the northern West Bank city of Nablus, described Israeli soldiers “erasing the writings on the outer walls of his house” while he was giving a statement to Israeli police officers (“Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, and the occupied Syrian Golan”).
Worse again, the Israeli government actually rewards this violence.
In March 2011, the government announced it would “legalize” all outposts built on “state land.” The policy, called “retroactive legalization,” turns illegal outposts into “legal” official settlements under Israeli law (“The government announces the intention to legalize outposts,” Peace Now, October 11 2011).
This is the state’s answer to the threat petitions in the Israeli high court pose to outposts. Instead of removal, it legalizes the outpost. So far a string of outposts have been “legalized,” particularly those embroiled in legal action to preempt a high court order.
Price tag violence specifically aims to save outposts. In essence, the settlers demand that the Israeli government disregard high court orders calling for the implementation of outpost demolition orders. They want every threatened outpost “legalized” or simply allowed to exist without further question.
With retroactive legislation, the government has given “price tag” settlers exactly what they wanted. The state has saved, or attempted to save, the same outposts whose upcoming demolition triggered waves of price tag attacks.
Netanyahu does not merely stop at legalizing outposts to placate settlers, a group he sees as allies in the drive to entrench his current position in the Israeli political system. When a final high court order makes retroactive legalization impossible, and an outpost demolition inevitable, the Israeli government simply replaces the demolished outpost by building a new settlement for its inhabitants elsewhere.
The Migron outpost, for example, was completely constructed on private Palestinian land, which made its legalization into an “authorized” settlement impossible. The high court verdict calling for its demolition triggered several waves of price tag attacks in 2011 and 2012. During the worst of it, settlers orchestrated a week of violence in which a mosque was set ablaze and another was vandalized, Palestinian cars were torched, 12 military vehicles at an Israeli army base were sabotaged, anti-Muslim graffiti was sprayed at Birzeit University, and employees of Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement organization, received death threats.
Instead of arresting the perpetrators, the government poured its resources into constructing two new settlements in return for the dismantling of Migron. As a bonus, the finance committee of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, approved a further 17 million shekels ($4.4 million) “as compensation for the Migron evacuees” in May 2012 (“Settlements to get NIS 44M,” 15 May).
“Obliged to protect settlements”
Netanyahu was disconcerted by the dismantlement of Migron, which was triggered by a high court petition initiated by Palestinian landowners and Peace Now.
To avoid the prospect of more petition-triggered outpost demolitions, the statesman moved to deter future petitions against outposts. Outpost demolitions were to be linked to increased housing construction in other settlements, effectively using the petitions to expand the settlement enterprise — the exact opposite of the result intended by the petitioners.
The strategy was put to practice when a petition led to a high court decision to demolish the Ulpana outpost near the Beit El settlement in the central West Bank by 1 July 2012. Leading up to the demolition, a wave of settler attacks left one mosque burned, a school vandalized and more than a dozen cars torched. Graffiti left behind read “Ulpana,” “The War Has Begun” and “You Will Pay the Price.”
The government responded by making a deal with the settlers of Ulpana. The original housing blocks would be removed, but an additional 851 housing units would be constructed in existing settlements. As it currently stands, not only will the settlers be relocated nearby, but hundreds more housing units than existed in the demolished outpost will be constructed.
Incredibly, The New York Times reported that Netanyahu’s Ulpana performance offered a “glimmer of hope.” Somehow it completely failed to connect the dots and realize what had actually happened: attacks on Palestinian villages to blackmail the Israeli government were rewarded, while those asking for the implementation of Israeli law were punished (“A glimmer?,” 5 June).
Netanyahu himself clarified that the extra units were constructed to cancel out the demolition and deter future high court petitions against outposts.
“I am obliged to protect the settlements,” he stated. “Those who think they can use the legal system to harm settlements are mistaken. In fact, the exact opposite is happening — instead of decreasing Beit El, the expansion [of] Beit El. Instead of harming settlements, strengthening them” (“NYT got it wrong: Netanyahu opposed bill in order to expand settlements,” +972 Magazine, 7 June).
The Ulpana episode is the Netanyahu government’s latest testament to its commitment to save every outpost, even when it means undermining the verdicts of its highest judicial authority. In doing so, it is sending a message that violence works to some of the most racist settler communities in the West Bank.
So far, international media outlets have failed to notice what is happening, perhaps due to a misplaced search for neutrality in a conflict where one side holds all the cards. Nonetheless, media coverage on price tag violence will remain distorted as long as the structural support the Israeli government has given to radical settler communities, its failure to enforce Israeli law against the settlers, and its current policies that breed further violence, are neglected.
It cannot be denied that a large part of the blame for what happened in Burqa this Saturday lies with the Israeli government. What’s worse is that its current policies ensure more Palestinian villages are bound to suffer the same fate or worse.
Philip Bato worked as a research officer for the UNESCO Chair of Human Rights and Democracy at An-Najah University. He is the author of “Price Tag Violence: A Blow Upon a Bruise,” jointly published in September 2012 by the UNESCO Chair and the Alternative Information Center.