Israel’s Government Grants Itself New Powers In Stepped-Up Fight Against “Price Tag” Attackers

Israel’s police and security services are upgrading their efforts to identify and arrest right-wing Jewish extremists targeting Israeli-Arabs and Palestinians. The national police and Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, are aware of the actors behind some of the recent “price tag” attacks, which derive their name from the graffiti left behind by the attackers. The incidents have historically occurred after Jewish settlers in the West Bank were attacked by Palestinians, sometimes with fatal results, and the Jewish criminals implied they were forcing Palestinians to ‘pay a price.’

Instead the “price tag” attackers are viewed by most Israelis – including by traditional right-wingers like former Speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin – as racists and terrorists. They are a marginalized fringe among even the most right leaning of Israel’s settlers, the vast majority of whom condemn both the perpetrators and their violent acts.

The broad phenomenon is not new, though over the years it has changed in its intensity and manifestation. Last month Palestinian residents of Beit Hanninah, a quite suburb of Jerusalem, woke up to see that tires of 21 cars slashed and one car was painted with graffiti. A similar incident had happened a week earlier in Abu Ghosh, a tranquil Israeli-Arab village 15 kilometers west of Jerusalem which has long been a bastion of Arab-Jewish coexistence and symbol of friendship even in difficult times. Car tires were slashed and graffiti saying “Arabs out” was left on a nearby wall.

Underscoring the tranquility and common bonds being attacked, local baker Ahmad Jabbar told the Associated Press in the aftermath of the attack, “We are very angry, but this won’t change the special relations here between Jews and Arabs….We don’t know the difference between Arabs and Jews here. We are brothers.”

While no one was injured in the Abu Gosh attacks, not everyone reacted to the racially motivated violence with such equanimity. The attacks sparked outrage from top Israel leaders.

The Israeli cabinet recently devoted one of its sessions to dealing with the problem. Every minister including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed disgust at the violent acts, denounced the perpetrators, and demanded the authorities catch them and bring them to justice. Netanyahu met and talked on several occasions with the Shin Bet director Yoram Cohen, instructing and backing him in the struggle to eradicate the phenomenon.

Ophir Pines-Paz, a former Labor Party MK and Minister in the both the Sharon and Olmert governments, also spoke out forcefully in an op-ed published on the popular Israeli website Walla. “We can no longer bury our head in the sand,” he wrote of the “price tag” violence and calling for action against those responsible. Failure to confront the activity, he wrote, “endangers not only its potential victims, but also the future of the state.”

The Shin Bet, the country’s FBI, is responsible for defending Israel’s democracy against acts of terror and subversion. One of the main directorates of the security agency is the one responsible for counter-espionage and counter-subversion. Established in the earliest years of the state, the one of the key units in the division, referred to in Hebrew as the “Jewish Brigade,” deals with Jewish terrorism and subversion. In the 1960s and 1970s, the unit dealt primarily with threats against democracy from radical left-wing groups. Since the 1980s, however, the unit’s efforts, resources, and energy have evolved to include combating extreme right-wing plots against Israeli-Arabs, Palestinians, and even left-wing Israelis.

Though the unit has logged several major achievements in exposing right-wing extremists, given recent events, clearly resting on past laurels is insufficient. While the “price tag” attacks that have risen to prominence recently have not resulted in any deaths, reports have cited a increase in property damage and cars set on fire, as well as physical assaults.

Late last month, Israel’s Defense Ministry issued a government supported directive, initiated by the Shin Bet, designed to boost available tools to fight the kinds of extremism the “Jewish Brigade” is meant to address. By announcing that it will now define planning and perpetrating “price tag” attacks as acts of “illegal organizing” – a legal definition that used to go after operatives working for Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terrorist organizations – the government is dramatically expanding its ability to investigate and detain those involved in attacks, as well as the severity of the sentences for those convicted.

In a closed door meeting with top security officials, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon stressed that not only the perpetrators, but also the masterminds and funders, will be taken down.

“This is a terrible phenomenon, which includes violence toward Arabs, damage to property and risking human live,” Ya’alon explained. “We must fight them with zero tolerance and utilize all the means we have,” he said, reflecting the views of the vast majority of Israelis.

Yet a few people still euphemistically refer to the extremists as “Hilltop Youth,” an allusion to the small, remote and isolated Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where some suspects linked to “price tag” attacks reportedly live. Those living in these communities are often influenced by extremist rabbis, and the environment is at the far fringe of Israel’s right wing.

Four years ago, attackers started targeting what the Shin Bet terms as “sacred [holy] symbols” – mosques, churches and monasteries. According to Israeli police and Shin Bet data, 12 mosques and four Christian sites in the West Bank or in the Jerusalem vicinity have been desecrated since the start of 2010, either with obscene and hateful graffiti or worse, by arson. The incidents were wake-up calls.

As the Shin Bet undertook an effort to combat the violence, the first step was to identify the attackers. There was no easy solution. The main requirement has been and remains intelligence. The Shin Bet had to pinpoint the individuals and groups involved and gather information on them and deployed traditional tools of surveillance, which include humint (human intelligence), sigint (signal intelligence), and visint (visual intelligence). Israeli intelligence sought to penetrate the targets by recruiting agents from within, to intercept phone calls, text, emails, and fax messages, and to physically monitor and observe.

Knowing they were under surveillance, the perpetrators took precautions, avoiding the phone, reducing their use of computers, and making efforts to expose the moles among them.

Eventually, the Shin Bet managed to map the terrain. Well-informed security sources tell TheTower that case officers and analysts have uncovered how the “price tag” networks operate, succeeded in identifying and distinguishing between leaders and those carrying out the attacks, and tracked supporters.

“The terrorists, the helpers and the envelope that surrounds their violent acts number no more than two hundred,” a former high ranking Shin Bet official familiar with the issue tells TheTower.

Like any law enforcement agency, the Shin Bet must work to translate the raw intelligence into legal evidence admissible in courts. To overcome that hurdle in the meantime, the Shin Bet issues orders under the military law in force in the West Bank to apprehend the suspects, in some cases placing them in administrative detention, and circumventing the need to go through court hearings.

Ya’alon, the leading Likud politician and Israel’s Defense Minister, has made clear that catching those carrying out these attacks is an absolute imperative.

“It is our duty to deliver harsh punishments on these criminals, seeing as the results of their actions are disastrous,” says Ya’alon, “they do not represent the values of the Jewish faith nor the values of the State of Israel.”

[Photo: elimand1 / Youtube]