Israeli Arabs Defend Property From Vandals Ahead of Pope Visit

Mohammed Mohsein rolled out of bed at midnight, and braced by strong black coffee and cigarettes, joined three neighbors standing guard at the mosque in their northern Israeli village.

Since suspected Jewish vandals slipped into Fureidis before dawn on April 29, slashing car tires and spraying “Close Mosques Instead of Jewish Seminaries” in Hebrew on a mosque wall, villagers have been volunteering to protect their holy place.

“We feel the government isn’t doing all it can to protect us,” said Mohsein, a 38-year-old civil engineer. “Hurting our mosque is basically like stabbing at our very existence here.”

Arab property, mosques and churches have been vandalized at least 10 times in Israel and the West Bank in the past two months alone, according to police, and one piece of graffiti called for murdering the soon-to-visit Pope Francis. There’s a risk this will fuel even more violence, said Tom Segev, an Israeli historian whose books include, “1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East.”

“There is no question that each one of these attacks, especially the ones in the West Bank, breeds even more radicalism,” Segev said. “If you ask a Palestinian why they are drawn into extremism, not a small portion will tell you it’s because of problems they had with settlers.”

Finance Minister Yair Lapid visited Fureidis to demonstrate his solidarity. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon called the attacks “terror” and said Israel must fight them with an “iron fist.”

‘Outrageous’ Activities

“Such activities are outrageous” and “contradict our essence and our values,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on May 1, according to a statement from his office. “We are working to apprehend those responsible,” he said, by increasing resources and enlisting Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said at least 10 people have been arrested since early April. He and the Justice Ministry said they didn’t have a specific accounting of charges, if any, brought in the cases. Most of the latest attacks are thought to be the work of minors acting “out of boredom,” he said.

Leaders of Israel’s Arab community, who make up a fifth of the country’s 8 million people, say authorities are falling short when it comes to bringing the vandals to justice.

Lenience Alleged

“If Arabs had attacked a synagogue they would have caught the raiders the very same day and declared a state of emergency,” said Bilal Mahajna, deputy mayor of Umm al-Fahm, an Arab town where vandals torched a mosque door on April 18.

The Arab public wonders “why law enforcement’s resourcefulness and speed disappear when it comes to Jewish terror,” said Hussein Abu Hussein, chairman of Adalah - The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

The U.S. has taken notice, writing in its 2013 report on terrorism that attacks by “extremist Israeli settlers” on Palestinian residents, property and places of worship have been “largely unprosecuted.”

The assaults are called “price tag,” an extension of the term once used to refer to the practice of settlers attacking Palestinians and their villages in response to Israeli government policies seen as anti-settlement. Vandals often scrawl the phrase on property they target.

‘Murder to the Pope’

The Israeli military has also become a target of “price tag” attacks because it enforces government policy. Last month, after military property was vandalized, the army took over a seminary in the Yitzhar settlement “to prevent violence and vandalism targeting security personnel and the adjacent villages,” it said in a statement. In an incident this month, an Israeli military vehicle was spray-painted with “Murder to the Pope,” who is due to visit May 25-26.

The church doesn’t see it as the work of pranksters. “There is no doubt that behind these crimes is some fanatical and fundamental religious, rather than political, ideology,” the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem wrote on its website. The patriarchate has jurisdiction for all Latin Church Catholics in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Cyprus.

Police are expanding patrols to protect Christian and Muslim sites from vandalism ahead of Pope Francis’s trip, said Rosenfeld, the police spokesman. Restraining orders were issued on May 21 against four activists suspected of planning to disrupt the visit, he said.

Language Seen Crucial

According to Tag Meir, an Israeli watchdog group, vandals have attacked more than 30 mosques and churches since 2009.

Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Shin Bet security service, says the problem is rooted in the government’s failure to label “price tag” attacks as terrorism, for fear that would blur the line with attacks by Palestinian and other militant groups that have killed hundreds of Israelis. That, he said, undercuts the Shin Bet’s mandate to fight terrorism.

“As long as it’s not defined as terrorism,” it’s not a priority for the Shin Bet, he said in a telephone interview.

Words such as “price tag” are “sweet and tender nicknames for this monster, and the time has come to call it by its name,” said Israeli author Amos Oz, who likened the attackers to “neo-Nazi groups.”

Distinction Sought

To distinguish the Jewish attackers from anti-Israel militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, the government has refrained from applying the terrorist label, a senior government official said. At the same time, it uses most of the tools employed to combat terrorism, including arrests without charges and technologies he didn’t specify. He asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to discuss official policy on this matter.

Allegations of lenience toward Jewish violence date back at least to the 1980s, when a government commission accused security forces of inaction against anti-Palestinian violence.

Some of the past violence has turned deadly. In 1994, American-born settler Baruch Goldstein gunned down 29 Palestinian worshipers at a disputed holy site in the West Bank city of Hebron. A year later, Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin over his territorial concessions to the Palestinians.

Watchdog group Tag Meir, a play on the Hebrew phrase for price tag, “tag mechir,” said the latest attacks are a result of teachings preached at some West Bank settler seminaries. In a 2009 book titled “The King’s Torah,” Yitzhar Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur reasoned that children of Israel’s enemies may be killed in war because “it is clear they will grow up to harm us.”

Damaging Cause

Dani Dayan, a settler leader, said the vandals are damaging the settlement cause. “We view this as morally repugnant and tactically damaging to our mission,” Dayan said by telephone.

Faisal Mahajna of Umm al-Fahm said he is concerned that if the attacks continue, Arabs will retaliate. A Jewish sage’s tomb in Galilee was desecrated this month in a possible reprisal, according to Israeli press reports.

“Our generation taught our children tolerance and that’s how they’ve grown up,” Mahajna said. “But they won’t swallow this type of discrimination. It’s only a matter of time until the fuse blows.”