‘Price tag’ attacks and the ethnic cleansing of Palestine

Israel/Palestine
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“Price tag” crimes are attacks on Palestinians and Palestinian property by Israeli settlers, which are meant to both intimidate Palestinians into leaving Palestine and serve as payback for perceived setbacks to Israel’s colonization efforts. Officially promulgated by Israeli settlers in 2011, the price tag movement follows more than six decades of official and unofficial attempts to terrorize Palestinians into leaving their homeland.

In just the past month, settlers twice attacked the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem, burning Palestinian carsslashing tires, and scrawling racist graffiti; they defaced a Palestinian Christian cemetery in Jaffa, writing “price tag” and “revenge” on several tombstones; price tag settlers destroyed two thousand five hundred Palestinian olive trees near Nablus in the first week of June; they slashed the tires of twenty Palestinian vehicles and spray-painted Stars of David, “price tag,” and “we won’t be silent on stone throwing” in the Beit Hanina neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem; and they slashed tires and wrote “Death to Arabs,” “Arabs out,” and “price tag” in Abu Ghosh, a village west of Jerusalem.  Israeli police have counted 165 price tag attacks this year.  

These attacks, particularly the Abu Ghosh incident, which came on the heels of the Israeli government’s decision to expand its powers to prosecute such crimes, have garnered plenty of attention and condemnation.  A news article in The New York Times matter-of-factly described the Abu Ghosh attacks as “racist [and] nationalistic.” Similarly, Israeli President, Shimon Peres, condemned the attacks as “racist behavior that crosses a red line.” The head of the right wing Jewish Home Party, Naftali Bennett, declared that price-tag crimes were “immoral and not Jewish.” Benjamin Netanyahu stated that the most recent incident “contravenes the precepts of Judaism and the values of our people and our state.”

But the hooligan Israelis who carry out these price tag attacks are striving for the same goals as Messrs. Peres, Bennett, and Netanyahu: namely, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Israel/Palestine.  They merely use different means to accomplish that goal.  In fact, price tag vandalism, while indeed reprehensible, pales in comparison to the far more insidious and far more powerful policies that the Israeli government has long enacted and enforced. 

In other words, “price tag” crimes and criminals are merely one component of a historically and politically vast ethnic cleansing machine.  The first phase of ethnic cleansing, in 1948, focused on systematically driving more than 750,000 Palestinians from the new state of Israel into exile (see Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, 2006).  Central to this phase has been the ongoing refusal by Israel to ever let Palestinian refugees return to their homes and land.  (Meanwhile, Israel will instantly grant citizenship to any Jew from anywhere in the world, simply because they are Jewish.)  The second phase of ethnic cleansing has been taking place since 1967, when Israel began its occupation of the Palestinian West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza Strip (in addition to the Syrian Golan Heights and Egyptian Sinai Peninsula). The ethnic cleansing has accelerated since the mid-1990s. As Munir Nuseibah explained, today’s ethnic cleansing is carried out using several methods.  In addition to the price tag attacks, the demolition and confiscation of property and the revocation of residency permits are the most common methods employed.

Demolition and Confiscation of Palestinian Property

On the same day that Mr. Netanyahu condemned the price tag attacks, his military began bulldozing a Palestinian schoolyard in the Azum Atma village of the occupied West Bank (Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem, “ARIJ Daily Report,” 18 June 2013). The destruction was meant to make way for the Israeli Separation Barrier and the Sha’are Tikva settlement.  The Israeli Civil Administration, also on that same day, ordered a Palestinian family near Ramallah to evacuate 14 dunums of their land near the Modi’in Illit settlement bloc.

Such destruction and confiscation occur on a daily basis in Palestine, as the Israeli government works in concert with settlers to further clear Palestinians and Palestinian property from large swaths of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The cleared land then serves as the basis for Israeli settlements, “nature preserves,” Israeli military bases, “Israeli national heritage” archaeological sites, the ground under the Israeli separation barrier, or as simply empty “state land.” (Gaza is not exempt from this picture; temporarily suspended Israeli foreign minister,Avigdor Lieberman, suggested earlier this week, “Israel will have to seriously consider the possibility of occupying all of the Strip and carrying out a serious cleansing.”)    

According to the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions (ICAHD), “Israel has demolished more than 28,000 Palestinian homes, businesses, livestock facilities and other structures” within the occupied Palestinian territories since 1967.  In 2012, Israel destroyed 189 Palestinian homes, displacing 880 people, over half of whom were children. There are currently orders for the demolition of 1,500 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem.

Israel orders the destruction of most of these, and other, Palestinian structures based on the claim that they lack appropriate building permits.  But the Israeli government rarely issues building permits to Palestinians (more than 94% of applications for permits have been denied, according to ICAHD, and those that are accepted are permitted in only 11% of occupied East Jerusalem and 30% of the occupied West Bank).  And many of the buildings that lack permits were constructed long before Israel existed.  To make matters worse—and even more insulting—Israel often requires Palestinians to pay for the destruction of their own homes. Palestinians unable to pay for the demolition of their own home can either destroy the home themselves or go to prison.

Revocation of Palestinian Residency Permits

The Israeli government regularly displaces Palestinians from East Jerusalem by revoking their residency permits.  A systematic effort to revoke the residency permits of Jerusalemite Palestinians has been taking place since 1967 and especially since 1995, when, according to B’Tselem, an unannounced policy of “quiet deportation” began.

Palestinians living in occupied Jerusalem live under the complete jurisdiction and military authority of the Israeli state but are not citizens of Israel.  They are “permanent residents,”  tagged with blue identity cards that permit them to live in Jerusalem and travel throughout the occupied territories and Israel.  Without these permits, Palestinians are unable to live or travel in Jerusalem or Israel.

The revocations are based, ostensibly at least, on the grounds that Palestinians with Jerusalem residency permits must make the city their “center of life.” Maintaining Jerusalem as one’s “center of life” has proven difficult, as the availability of housing, oppressive taxation, and a scarce number of jobs have driven many Palestinians further into the West Bank or abroad. Israelis, in contrast, can live abroad for decades, travel within, to, and from Israel at will, and in general, make their “center of life” far from Jerusalem without ever losing their legal right to live there.   

Exactly how a Palestinian’s “center of life” is determined was illustrated to me by a woman I met on a recent trip to Bethlehem, whose extended family maintains homes in both Bethlehem and Jerusalem. She and her husband had moved to Bethlehem from Jerusalem decades ago in search of adequate housing.  But when the Israeli military laid siege to Bethlehem in 2001, the gun battles near their home forced them to flee back to occupied East Jerusalem, where they have since remained.

Now, seeking to prove that Jerusalem is not her family’s “center of life,” agents from the National Insurance Institute of Israel periodically raid both her family’s Bethlehem and Jerusalem homes (one year on Christmas morning), searching through their refrigerators, dresser drawers, and other details of their lives, taking photographs of everything they find.  Moreover, “our children, who have been studying abroad,” the woman said to me, “live with the constant threat that they will have their residency permits withdrawn and have to live in permanent exile.” Even if they do move back to Jerusalem, she said, “these threats will remain a constant reality, as they will have a hard time finding jobs and housing.”

Her family, armed with sumud (steadfastness), has so far been fortunate, as the Israeli government has not yet revoked their residency permits, but they still must endure the invasions of their most private spaces and the fear that at any moment they could lose their family home and their ability to live, travel to, or work in Jerusalem.

Thousands of Palestinians have not been so lucky. The United Nations reports that Israel stripped 14,000 Palestinians (not including dependent children) of their Jerusalem residency permits between 1967 and 2010, including more than 4,500 in 2008 alone. 

Hypocrisy

Shimon Peres and The New York Times were right to identify the price-tag attacks as “racist.” Most people would agree with Naftali Bennett that the settlers’ behavior is “immoral.” And Benjamin Netanyahu is speaking the truth when he claims that such attacks “contravene the precepts of Judaism.” But is the revocation of someone’s legal ability to live in Jerusalem, just because they are Palestinian, not also racist?  Is the refusal to allow someone to return to their home, just because they are Palestinian, not also immoral?  Doesn’t the demolition of someone’s home, just because they are Palestinian, also contravene the precepts of Judaism?

The Israeli government and price tag criminals alike target Palestinian people and property for the same reason—they are Palestinian.  Together, the price tag attacks, the revocation of residency permits, the confiscation and destruction of Palestinian property, and the refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to return, form a central component of the Israeli nation-state: the removal of Palestinians, simply because they are Palestinian.

If that’s not racist, immoral, and contrary to the values of Judaism, I don’t know what is. 

About Robert Ross

Robert Ross is an Associate Professor of Global Cultural Studies at Point Park University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His research and teaching focus upon the political-economic geographies of Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and the United States. He is also a member of the Pittsburgh Palestine Solidarity Committee and the Israel-Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

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