Israel doing nothing to stop attacks on churches and mosques

Stained glass and a statue of the Virgin Mary were among the items destroyed in the latest attack on St. Stephen’s church at Beit Jamal, west of Jerusalem. (Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem)

Since 2009, at least 53 churches and mosques have been vandalized in present-day Israel and the occupied West Bank.

The vast majority of those cases – 45 – have been closed without any charges against perpetrators.

In all, there have been just nine indictments and seven convictions, according to Israeli government data reported by the newspaper Haaretz. Only eight of the cases remain under investigation.

They were usually dismissed on the grounds of unknown perpetrators.

A lawmaker raised the matter in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, at the request of Tag Meir, an organization that monitors racially motivated crimes.

According to Haaretz, public security minister Gilad Erdan wrote to the lawmaker that the attacks “were perpetrated from various motives, ranging from negligence through mental illness and, in extreme cases, incidents of arson that appear deliberate.”

The newspaper noted that Erdan’s assertion “seems to contradict the fact that most of the cases were closed on the grounds of ‘perpetrator unknown.’”

Moreover, according to Haaretz, all the cases involved arson.

The name of the organization Tag Meir is a play on the Hebrew words tag mehir – or price tag – the term Israeli settlers and extremists have adopted to describe their sometimes lethal attacks on non-Jews and their property, especially Palestinians.

Third attack

In the most recent attack, on 20 September, vandals shattered a statue of the Virgin Mary, broke stained glass and destroyed a cross in St. Stephen’s Church in the Beit Jamal Salesian Monastery west of Jerusalem.

“I was shocked,” the church’s caretaker Father Antonio Scudu told the Catholic News Service. “I didn’t expect to see something like this. The church is always open. If you see what happened, you feel they did it with hate. They smashed everything.”

Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem’s senior cleric in Palestine, said, “this is not only an act of vandalism but an action against the sacredness of the holy places and the faith of people.”

This was the third attack on Beit Jamal in the past four years, but no arrests have ever been made.

Wadie Abunassar, adviser to the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, condemned the desecration in a post on Facebook .

“We are fed up with repeated attacks on holy places,” Abunassar stated, adding that “anger is not only directed at the aggressors,” but at Israeli authorities which have failed to deal with the phenomenon.

Abunassar told The Electronic Intifada that there was growing public frustration at how the police deal with the incidents, given the small number of cases that have been resolved.

Unchecked incitement

Israeli police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld has claimed that the incidents are unconnected.

“There have been arrests in previous cases,” he said. “We are looking into this case to see if it was an individual or a group. These are all separate cases.”

While Abunassar does not know if the incidents are done by individuals connected to each other, he points to constant incitement by extremist rabbis inspiring such actions.

He added that these right-wing preachers are not “sufficiently deterred by Israeli law enforcement authorities.”

He recalled one of the more notorious cases, Torat Hamelech or The King’s Torah, a 2009 book by Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur.

The book argues that it is permissible in certain circumstances to kill the non-Jewish children and babies of Israel’s enemies since “it is clear that they will grow to harm us.”

As a result, the UK banned the entry of Elitzur.

Israeli authorities investigated the pair for incitement, but eventually decided not to charge them.

Amongst other figures who encourage these attacks is Bentzi Gopstein, the head of Lehava, a vigilante group that opposes miscegenation between Jews and Arabs.

In August 2015, Gopstein publicly called for the burning of churches and mosques.

The Vatican urged Israel to charge Gopstein with incitement to violence and terrorism.

Months later, Gopstein wrote an article branding Christians “blood-sucking vampires” and urging their expulsion from the country.

Although bishops have asked to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss these hate crimes, their request has been ignored.

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It goes without saying that vandalism against Muslim places of worship will not keep most American evangelicals awake nights. But I can't help wondering about their response to attacks on Christian churches. They seem very involved in Israel, defending the state through every channel of their ministry. Perhaps we could hear a word or two from one of these Zionist pastors. Or are their Palestinian brethren a lesser form of being?

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Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.