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Mosque torching: When extremist attacks against Arabs cross the Green Line

Al-Akhbar – 5 October 2011

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, was reportedly “outraged” on Monday by images of the gutted mosque in the Bedouin village of Tuba Zangariya, close to the Galilee’s Jewish towns of Rosh Pina and Safed.

The mosque was torched by right-wing Jewish extremists. Netanyahu warned that the attack violated Israel’s “supreme values” of freedom of religion and worship and called on the security services to swiftly catch the perpetrators.

However, critics pointed out that he and other government ministers had failed to express equal concern over a spate of similar attacks on mosques that have occurred in the West Bank over the past two years.

Arab Knesset Member Ahmed Tibi observed of the Israeli leadership: “Those who failed to stop the cancerous growth and the mosque burning in the occupied territories should not be surprised when the metastasis grows inside the state of Israel.”

Since 2009, when Netanyahu formed the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, Jewish extremist groups based in the West Bank settlements have set fire to more than half a dozen Palestinian mosques, as well as committing several pogrom-style attacks on isolated Palestinian communities.

Now, the suspicions of Israel’s Arab minority that they too are on the hit list have been confirmed.

Despite the rapid rise of these pogrom-style tactics by Jewish terror groups, Israel’s security services have yet to catch a single suspect. The extremists’ impunity now appears to have emboldened them to turn their attention to holy places belonging to Israel’s Arab citizens.

Jafar Farah, of Mossawa, an advocacy organization for the 1.5 million-strong Arab minority, said the latest attack was an intensification of the extremists’ efforts to derail what was left of the peace process.

“Their agenda is to complicate the political situation by trying to provoke violent conflict between Arabs and Jews in Israel,” he said. “They want us to react. Then they can claim that the Arabs are trying to drive the Jews into the sea, and that no political solution is possible.”

In particular, the attack may represent an escalation by the settlers of this strategy in response to the Palestinian leadership’s recent determination to push for statehood at the UN.

When discussing the peace process, Netanyhau and his far-right foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, have both spoken in terms of “reopening of the 1948 file” – a reference to what they consider unfinished business from the war that founded Israel but left it with a sizeable Palestinian Arab minority inside the new borders.

Both Lieberman and Netanyahu have spoken of the continuing presence of Arab citizens in Israel, currently a fifth of the total population, as a “demographic timebomb” that, if not defused, will eventually destroy Israel’s Jewish identity.

Farah and others have noted the strange choice of Tuba Zangariya for the attack. Most Arab citizens are exempt from military service. But Tuba, like several other deprived Bedouin communities in northern Israel, chooses to send most of its young men to the Israeli army, where they serve as trackers. The community trumpets its loyalty to the state.

In Farah’s view, Jewish extremists may have hoped to enrage the soldiers of Tuba into an armed confrontation with the Israeli police, sparking wider clashes in the Galilee between the Arab minority and the security forces.

In the aftermath of the mosque’s destruction, hundreds of villagers, including at least two dozen armed young men, staged angry protests in which buildings were damaged. So far the Israeli police have arrested at least 20 youths from Tuba, and say more arrests are to follow.

This tough approach, said Farah, contrasts with the ineffectiveness of Israeli investigations into the activities of Jewish terror groups.

Before they left Tuba, the arsonists scrawled on the walls of the gutted mosque the words “Price tag” – a term familiar from regular attacks in which settlers harass and assault their Palestinian neighbors in the West Bank.

Settler attacks usually intensify at this time of year, as the olive-picking season starts. Gangs roam the West Bank beating Palestinians who try to harvest their trees. Such assaults have become so commonplace they now rarely merit mention in the Israeli news.

Few settlers have been arrested, and prosecutions are unheard of. A Palestinian blogger, Aziz Abu Sarah, noted: “There is no fear from committing such attacks, since law enforcement officials have done nothing to prosecute the perpetrators.”

The “price tag” policy was originally devised as a way to intimidate Palestinians and force them off West Bank land coveted by the settlers for the expansion of their illegal communities.

But increasingly it has also come to be used as a way to exert political pressure on the Israeli government: attacks often follow the symbolic destruction by officials of a new settler outpost, usually comprising no more than a few caravans, or a minister’s speech contemplating a slowdown in settlement building.

Last month, a mosque in Qasra, a village south of Nablus, was torched in reprisal for the enforcement of a court order to demolish three homes in Migron, one of dozens of settlement outposts Israel has yet to authorize.

Despite a surge in “price tag” attacks, and recent warnings from the Israeli security services that terror cells are multiplying in the West Bank, few government resources are being invested in tackling the phenomenon.

The Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, has a much-neglected “Jewish section” – overshadowed by a larger and better-funded “Arab section” – that has been either unable or unwilling to bring Jewish extremists to book. Critics have pointed out that many of the Jewish section officers are settlers themselves.

Meanwhile, Jewish terror groups, according to new research from the Shin Bet, have compiled a database of ever-bolder targets – not only of Palestinians but also of “treasonous” Israeli Jews, including peace activists, army officers, and politicians.

Extremist groups have been increasingly focusing attention on the Arab population inside Israel since the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, which resulted in the evacuation of 8,000 settlers.

Natan Zada, a soldier from a West Bank settlement, even tried to foil the disengagement a few days before it took place by opening fire on a bus in an Arab town in the Galilee, killing four and wounding dozens. His apparent goal was to trigger riots among Israel’s Arab citizens as a way to force the Israeli security services to redeploy away from Gaza.

Since then, a significant number of right-wing extremists have changed tack and begun establishing hardline communities inside Israel, in the middle of Arab neighborhoods in a handful of so-called mixed cities, the only places where Jews and Arabs live in close proximity.

The groups have set up in these neighborhoods hesder yeshivas, seminaries where religious men prepare for army service, rapidly increasing tensions in cities like Acre and Jaffa.

And in the last few years, far-right settlers have also started organizing marches through Arab towns in the Galilee and Negev, backed by thousands of police, in a provocative show of force.

The attack on the mosque suggests they are now developing a new, even more confrontational approach.

Their growth in confidence may derive in part from an anti-Arab climate rapidly being fostered by mainstream rabbis in Israel. Tuba is only a few kilometres from Safed, a Jewish town where Shmuel Eliyahu, the municipal rabbi and an influential spiritual figure, has led a popular campaign to expel Arab students who study at the local college.

Arab leaders in Israel have been infuriated by the failure of Israeli legal authorities to put Eliyahu and dozens of other rabbis who support his position on trial for incitement.

A few moderate rabbis have dared to speak out. Gilad Kariv, head of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, this week urged Israeli religious leaders to condemn the “price tag” policy. He added: “This isn’t a marginal act of hooliganism, this is the ongoing growth of a phenomenon that receives the silent approval of the community and rabbinic leadership.”

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