Israel should drop its reluctance to enforce the law against ‘price tag’ attackers.
By Ziad J. Asali, Dec. 15, Haaretz
Violent assaults, desecrating mosques and churches, uprooting trees, destroying cars, and damaging property – these are all examples of “price tag” attacks carried out by extremist Israeli hooligans against Palestinians, mainly in the occupied territories. In a few cases this violence has even been perpetrated against Israeli security personnel. Unfortunately, and consistently, the thugs responsible often enjoy de facto impunity for their crimes.
These price tag attacks take place within a context of an asymmetry of power between the occupying Israeli society and an occupied Palestinian population. A hooligan and fringe element that exists within both the mainstream Israeli and settler communities acts outside the law, and without the approval of the state. Yet the state seems unable, or unwilling, to deploy its full authority against them.
The crucial factor in creating such impunity is the hooligans’ participation in the dominant Jewish Israeli identity group. Palestinians in the occupied territories live under Israeli military rule and are not citizens of any state. The price tag extremists, by contrast, are Israeli citizens with all the concomitant rights and responsibilities. The Palestinians are an exposed and vulnerable population.
These attacks pose a powerful moral and political quandary for Israel and the occupation. No state can allow a condition of uncontrolled anarchy to prevail. But to enforce the law against such hooligans would have the effect of empowering their victims. It implies that the victim population is equal under the law.
The protection of this structure of systematic and legal inequality creates an incentive not to vigorously prosecute price tag attacks. Of course, sometimes such attacks are prosecuted to prevent an atmosphere of excessive anarchy and to maintain the authority of the state. But, even if such prosecutions are reassuring to Israelis, they do little to allay the justified fears of Palestinians.
Of course there are also Palestinian attacks against Israelis in the occupied territories. But almost everyone agrees that given their limited resources, Israeli restrictions, and relatively small areas of operation, the Palestinian Authority’s security forces have done a commendable job in minimizing them.
Extremist settlers see themselves as the vanguard of a Greater Israel movement that is above the law. This is expressed through not just price tag attacks, but wildcat settlement outposts and other unauthorized actions that defy Israeli state authority in the name of this expansionist and annexationist project. For ideological, religious and fraternal reasons, too many Israelis and their institutions are frequently willing to look the other way.
Like other societies facing similar challenges in previous times, Israel now finds itself at a crossroads. It is confronted by the need to enforce the rule of law by disciplining vigilante extremists, but this means re-contextualizing some structures of Israeli privilege in the occupied territories. Inequality under the law is not compatible with equally vigilant protection of the law, which can undermine the very logic of separate rules for different folk.
Israeli society is perfectly capable of acting more robustly against price tag extremists. Indeed, it is in Israel’s interest to control these criminals. And the cost of not enforcing law and order is prohibitive and self-corrosive. Israel must decide whether its own society will allow a hooligan minority to dictate to an orderly majority.
Many Israeli political and social leaders have spoken up against the extremist attacks. But words are not enough. There is much more the Israeli state can and should do to contain the danger posed by this volatile, lawless fringe. These are, after all, the ideological and moral descendants of those responsible for the assassination of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. If Israel allows this burgeoning movement to continue to flourish, it may be permitting the creation of a segment of its own society committed to violently resisting peace with the Palestinians — as reflected in their occasional attacks on, and threats against, the Israeli security forces themselves.
Israel has a clear moral and legal obligation to protect Palestinians living under its occupation. Moreover, if Israel wants to be a democratic and Jewish state, it needs to end the occupation and allow an independent Palestinian state to be born. The price tag vigilantes both see themselves, and genuinely represent, the vanguard of a segment of Israeli society that would prefer confronting other Jews to a reasonable peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Even under the current circumstances, and despite the inescapable injustices inherent to this occupation, Israelis and Palestinians nonetheless live side-by-side. They must stop attacking each other, both for their individual, personal security and to preserve the prospects of peace.
In the long run, Israel controlling this violent and fringe rabble should serve as a prelude for ending the systematic structure of legal inequality inherent in the occupation by allowing Palestinians their independence. In the short run, the least Israel can do is enforce its own law on its citizens, even in the occupied territories.
Dr. Ziad J. Asali is President of the American Task Force on Palestine.