This week, Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Nazareth had a note delivered at his home. It warned that he and his followers had until May 5 to leave the “land of Israel”. On Tuesday April 29, Israeli police announced that a Jewish man from Safed had been arrested after delivering that note.
In a similar incident, vandals also targeted a church at Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee that marks the site where Christians believe Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes. A cross was smashed and several pews damaged.
“The Christian community feels increasingly threatened,” Samuel Barhoum, the Episcopalian archdeacon of Jerusalem, told Al Jazeera. “We see that Israel is going further and further to the right. It does not matter whether you are Muslim or Christian, in these people’s eyes we are the enemy.”
A wave of violence over the past fortnight, including attacks against two mosques and a church, has shocked Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who comprise a fifth of the population, and raised fears that Israeli right-wing extremists are growing bolder as they shift attention to targeting Palestinian areas inside Israel. One such incident took place in Umm al-Fahm, the second largest Palestinian city in Israel.
On April 18, Palestinian worshippers, arriving at the Araq al-Shabab mosque in Umm al-Fahm for morning prayers, discovered the mosque had been the target of an arson attack. The mosque doors, according to Jamil Mahajana, the local imam, were still smouldering and the words “Arabs out!” had been sprayed nearby.
The attacks prompted Amir Peretz, a dovish minister in Israel’s government, to speak out, warning that violence by Jewish extremists had become a “dangerous epidemic”.
Palestinians have been protesting against the attacks and demanding action. This week, some 2,500 residents of Fureidis, a town south of Haifa, marched to demand action from the police and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the day after a local mosque was defaced with a Star of David and graffiti saying “Shut down mosques”. Some 20 cars parked nearby had their tyres slashed. The protesters chanted, “Netanyahu is a coward” and “Racism is spreading.”
Mohammed Barakeh, a Palestinian member of Israel’s parliament who led a protest last week in Umm al-Fahm, personally blamed Netanyahu for the spate of attacks.
The extremists see Netanyahu has made recognition of Israel’s Jewishness a central demand in the peace talks. They see the racist legislation his government adopts.
“Extremist groups are being encouraged by Netanyahu’s constant sloganeering that Israel is a Jewish state, suggesting that an Arab population has no right to be here,” Barakeh told Al Jazeera.
“The extremists see Netanyahu has made recognition of Israel’s Jewishness a central demand in the peace talks. They see the racist legislation his government adopts. They see the police do nothing to tackle this phenomenon. And they conclude that the government quietly approves of their behaviour.”
In January, a report by a United Nations agency, OCHA, documented 2,100 incidents of settler violence in the occupied territories alone since 2006.
Right-wing extremists describe violence against Palestinians, whether in the occupied territories or in Israel, as “price tag” attacks. The term is meant to indicate that there will be a cost to Palestinians if either the power of the settlers is challenged or the Palestinians sought diplomatic concessions from Israel.
The first major price tag attack inside Israel occurred in late 2011, when a mosque in the Galilee village of Tuba-Zangaria was set on fire. No one has been charged for the attack.
There may be several possible triggers for this current wave of attacks, including the Israeli right’s growing concern that the peace talks, which formally came to an end this week, will not make headway. Jewish nationalists are also reportedly angry at the impending visit of the pope.
Israeli officials have indicated recently that they intend to take “price -tag” attacks more seriously, after several outbreaks of violence by extremist settlers against Israeli security forces. In the most recent incident this month, police were beaten as they tried to demolish unauthorised buildings in the militant settlement of Yitzhar.
In response, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said he was considering – for the first time – using administrative detention orders against right-wing extremists. That would allow them to be locked up on secret evidence, as is currently the case with the Palestinians.
However, the government has so far refused to categorise settler violence as “acts of terror”, which would give the security forces stronger powers. During a cabinet debate on the subject last summer, Netanyahu reportedly said such a move would be a diplomatic mistake, encouraging observers to draw a comparison between the settlers and the Palestinian movement Hamas.
Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israeli police, confirmed that there has been a recent “escalation” in violence by hardline nationalists inside Israel, as well as in occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Rosenfeld denied that the police were not doing enough to stop the attacks. A special task force was established last year to investigate price tag attacks. Its activities, however, are limited to the West Bank. Police say they face serious difficulties in tracking down suspects.
“There is no network planning these incidents. They are sporadic and committed by individuals who often decide on the spur of the moment to carry out an attack,” said Rosenfeld.
Calling the attacks “unsettling”, Netanyahu promised that the government would invest more resources, including bringing in the Shin Bet, the domestic intelligence service that is more commonly used against Palestinians.
Palestinian leaders, however, accused Israeli authorities of repeatedly turning a blind eye to attacks by Jewish extremist groups. “If these crimes were being committed by Palestinians against Jews, the culprits would be caught within hours or days,” said Awad Abdel Fattah, a member of the Higher Follow-Up Committee, the main political body for Palestinians inside Israel.
“But no one is protecting us from these attacks. The police and the government see us, not these extremists, as the enemy,” Abdel Fattah told Al Jazeera.
Barakeh said the attack on a large Palestinian city like Umm al-Fahm was seen as crossing a red line and showing a greater confidence among the extremists.
It is not the first time that Umm al-Fahm has attracted the attention of hardline nationalist groups. The city has also been the focus of a campaign by far-right Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He wants to redraw Israel’s borders to strip some 250,000 Palestinians, including the city’s residents, of their citizenship.
In unfortunate timing for Israel, the US State Department published its annual Country Report on Terrorism this week, noting that “price tag” attacks in Israel and the occupied territories had gone “largely unprosecuted”.
Abdel Fattah said Palestinians in Israel were increasingly concerned that official inaction over these attacks could encourage another “Eden Nathan Zada” – a reference to a settler who opened fire on a bus in the Palestinian town of Shefaram in 2005, killing four passengers and wounding 12 more, apparently as a protest against the disengagement from Gaza.
Abdel Fattah pointed out that the Follow-Up Committee had no trust in the police. Instead, it had decided to establish local popular committees in Israel to organise night-time patrols that would guard their communities. They would be modelled on similar committees operating in parts of occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Zahi Njeidat, spokesman for the Islamic Movement in Palestine, sharply criticised the police for failing to make progress in the arson attack on Araq al-Shabab mosque. “These are terrorist attacks,” Njeidat told Al Jazeera. “The goal is to make us feel like we have no security in our homes and in our communities, so that we will leave. This is about carrying out our transfer, but we are staying put.”
Last year, according to OCHA’s figures, there were 93 attacks by settlers that resulted in injuries to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
“Our fear is that, if these extremists see that nothing is being done to stop them [in Israel], they will move from attacks on property to attacks on people,” Abdel Fattah said.