Palestinian community leaders have blamed a refusal by the Israeli government to condemn increased incitement to racial hatred for a recent surge in extremist violence by settlers and other Zionists.
“The problem here is the way the Israeli government is dealing with all the brutal acts of the settlers in the West Bank and now inside the Green Line [Israel as it is recognized internationally]. The Israeli government is doing nothing in order to stop these racist people, and this fact gives this bunch of racists a green light to do anything they want,” said Sami Abu Shehadeh, a Jaffa resident and member of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipal council.
“We are really worried. Now these people are attacking holy places; tomorrow they could also hurt people,” explained Abu Shehadeh, during a demonstration on 8 October against the recent desecration of Muslim and Christian cemeteries in Jaffa by suspected Jewish-Israeli extremists.
On the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday of repentance, suspected Israeli extremists spray-painted “Death to Arabs” and “Price Tag” on headstones in the two Jaffa cemeteries.
“We are having terrorist groups of Jews going inside the Green Line and in the West Bank,” Abu Shehadeh added, “and nobody is doing anything [about it], and they are really dangerous people.”
Wave of racist attacks throughout Israel
On 9 October, the words “Maccabi Haifa [a soccer club] doesn’t want Arabs on the team,” “Death to Arabs,” and “Rabbi Kahane was right” — referring to Meir Kahane, the leader of the ultra right-wing, banned Kach party, who advocated the forcible deportation of all Palestinians — were also found spray-painted on structures in the city of Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv.
These attacks came less than a week after a mosque in the Bedouin village of Tuba Zangariya, in the Galilee region of northern Israel, was set on fire. The inner walls of the mosque, holy books, and carpets were severely damaged in the attack.
Two suspects have been arrested in relation to the arson attack, including one who is reportedly a student at a religious yeshiva in Yitzhar, an ultra-right-wing, illegal settlement in the occupied West Bank. Not far from Nablus, settlers from Yitzhar are known for routinely harassing Palestinians.
“We are here to say that the Israeli government is responsible for what happened to the cemeteries and the mosque in Tuba Zangaria,” Jamal Zahalka, a Palestinian member of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), said during the demonstration in Jaffa.
While Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres have denounced the cemetery and mosque attacks, Zahalka said that the government’s silence when it comes to racist incitement and discrimination on the part of state-sponsored Jewish religious leaders has led to the recent violence.
He pointed to the group of approximately 50 municipal, government-employed rabbis who last year banned the selling or renting of land and apartments to non-Jews, as an example of racist incitement not condemned by the Netanyahu government.
“They didn’t punish the rabbis of Tzfat [Safed]. They didn’t punish the rabbis of the settlements. They didn’t punish rabbi Ovadia Yosef [the spiritual leader of Shas, a religious, right-wing Israeli political party] when they incited against the Arab citizens in Israel,” Zahalka said.
“The distance between racist words and racist deeds is very narrow, is very short. We accuse the Israeli government of inspiring the small racists to do what they do.”
“Price tag” policy widespread in West Bank
Israeli settlers normally use the words “price tag” — which were scrawled on the headstones in Jaffa — during attacks on Palestinians and Palestinian property in the occupied West Bank. Price tag violence is now also increasingly used as a way to display disapproval or anger for an Israeli government decision, such as curbing settlement construction.
In early September, for instance, right-wing Israelis vandalized two mosques in the Palestinian towns of Yatma and Qusra, near Nablus, in response to the demolition of three homes in Migron, an “outpost” of an illegal settlement.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that attacks by settlers against Palestinian property in the West Bank rose by 57 percent in the first seven months of 2011, compared with the same period one year earlier (“In West Bank, settler violence seen on the rise,” Reuters, 14 July 2011).
These attacks largely go unpunished. According to Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, of over 600 complaints filed by Palestinians at “Samaria & Judea (SJ) District Police” stations in the West Bank regarding offenses committed by Israeli civilians against them and their property since 2005, only 8 percent of investigations led to the offenders being identified and indicted (“Recommendations: Improving law enforcement in the West Bank,” Yesh Din, 20 September 2011).
“It reflects a very deep and wide racism and violence that has been going around in Israeli, Zionist discourse for years and years. It’s only been [escalating] and it’s becoming more and more violent and racist by the day,” said Michal Vexler, an Israeli political activist who attended the demonstration in Jaffa against the price tag attacks.
A member of Anarchists Against the Wall and Boycott from Within, a group of Israeli activists supporting the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, Vexler said that BDS was the only way to put pressure on Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, its apartheid policies inside the country, and the growing wave of extremism that fuels price tag violence.
“Boycott Israel. Stop buying Israeli goods. I’m afraid the situation here is totally hopeless. I don’t see any way to stop it but to stop Zionism completely. It might sound radical; but wherever I go, I just encounter more violence and more repression and I won’t be surprised if these demonstrations would become more and more rare,” she said.
“But I deeply believe in the possibility of living together, Jews and Arabs, and I’m here to show my solidarity. [It’s] not because I know it’s going to change something, but because I know my neighbors will be here, my friends will be here, and they were hurt [because of the attack in Jaffa],” Vexler added.
Attacks could “burn the city”
Shortly after the attack on the Jaffa cemeteries, the Israeli media reported that a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the roof of a local synagogue. According to Jaffa resident Sami Abu Shehadeh, this is exactly what the people who desecrated the gravestones were hoping for: igniting tensions between Jewish and Palestinian residents of Jaffa.
“Jaffa is a mixed city. We have Jews and Arabs living together, and such acts could simply burn the city. When anyone comes to damage a cemetery, which is something very, very sensitive, a Christian and a Muslim cemetery, it means that he wants to burn the city,” Abu Shehadeh said.
“This is a very dangerous situation and we don’t know how it will develop. Unfortunately, I’m really worried that tomorrow these kinds of people might attack people, not just gravestones.”
Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at http://jkdamours.com.