Price-Tag Attacks Against Palestinians Are About the Nature of the Jewish State


The horrific killing of 18-month-old Ali Dawabshe and his father Sa’ed in an arson attack on the last day of a hot Middle Eastern July brought fear and loathing in the West Bank and Israel to new heights. Not just between Arabs and Jews, but also between two competing political cultures, each offering a different vision for the Jewish state. Though the perpetrators have not yet been caught, the Israeli Internal Security Agency (ISA) has suggested that the attack represents a significant change in the pattern of settler violence against Palestinians.

At first glance, the ISA seems to be correct. As we have recorded in our original dataset on the phenomenon, the July 31 attack on two houses in the Palestinian village of Duma was the first “price-tag” attack that killed anyone since the trend began in 2008. The name “price-tag” reflects its perpetrators’ desire to extract a “price” for actions taken by Palestinians or the Israeli state that they dislike.

ISA further suggested that the change in lethality is a result of radical settlers’ adoption of a more ambitious political program. ISA claims that the killings were part of an effort to ignite a broader Israeli–Palestinian clash that would lead to political instability in Israel, eventually resulting in a religious state.

Our analysis of the ubiquitous graffiti at the site of “price-tag” incidents helps confirm that the motivations of previous attackers include preventing the removal of unauthorized settler outposts by the Israeli government, exacting revenge for violence against Jewish settlers by Palestinians, and intimidating Arab, Muslim, and Christian civilians and institutions. The attacks have succeeded by either distracting Israeli forces as they try to remove outposts or inflicting a cost for such removal by attacking Palestinian property, mosques, churches, or — in rare cases — Israeli military property and personnel. If the killing of the two members of the Dawabshe family was indeed part of a strategy to instigate a broader conflict and overthrow the state, it would represent an escalation from previous attacks.

Israel’s response might also represent a change: A number of radical settlers have been arrested, and others have been placed under administrative detention in connection to this case. In the vast majority of past “price-tag” cases there were no arrests, and the vast majority of individuals held by Israel under administrative detention are Palestinians.

Though this latest attack might appear to signal change, it really represents continuity in both tactics and motivations. Arson has been used nearly 100 times in previous “price-tag” attacks. The attack on the Dawabshe household occurred two days after Israeli security forces dismantled two illegal structures built on private Palestinian land in the settlement of Beit El. Another possible motive is that one month before the attack on the village of Duma, Malachi Rosefeld, a 25-year-old settler, was killed by Palestinians a few miles away. In Judaism, the preliminary period of mourning lasts a month and ends in a memorial service — and the graffiti near the attack in Duma read “revenge.”

More broadly, however, the deadly attack reflects an old debate about the identity of the Jewish national project and the state it founded in 1948. The national-secular approach holds that Israel is a modern state and that its source of legitimacy rests in its citizens. The state is governed through human-made laws and only the state can use violence to protect its citizens. This explains why the state — even when governed by the conservative Benjamin Netanyahu — removes some illegally constructed settler outposts. According to the national-secular approach, Israel is a Jewish state only by virtue of the Jewish majority within the context of Israeli democracy. Hence, most of those who support Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank (largely populated by Palestinians) belong to the national-secular group united in a vision of a state with a Jewish majority.

The national-religious approach generally holds that Israel is a manifestation of an ancient divine decree, and the purpose of this approach is to create a public sphere that follows Jewish religious rules. Therefore, the state, its rules, and its agents are only legitimate when they carry out religious decrees. According to this approach, Jews should settle and control the West Bank because the divine granted it to them — even if this means the end of the Jewish majority should Israel formally annex the West Bank. Since the source of authority is (the Jewish) God, even an Arab majority will not be able to determine the nature of the public sphere, implying a permanent second-class status for Arabs in such a future unified religious Israel.

The specific group of settlers that are involved in “price-tag” violence — the “hilltop youth” — take an even dimmer view of the Jewish state. Meir Ettinger, a young radical that was recently arrested in connection with the attack, wrote: “The laws that commit [us] … are not the laws of the state … but far more eternal laws.” Ettinger continued, “The Jews … know that their right for the land was received from the scripture, and not from the laws of the state, these latter ones are null and void.” In another post he suggested:

The problem is … the shallowness of the approach to security held by the military and the Internal Security Agency. The scripture has a different approach to security — all of the land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel, and therefore to prevent terrorism … there is only one solution … to remove the Arabs from the land.

The violent manifestations of this clash are not limited to territorial matters or to conflict with the Palestinians. It extends to all issues in the public sphere, including matters such as gay rights. A day before the attack in Duma, religious radical Yishai Shlisel knifed participants in Jerusalem’s gay pride parade, killing 16-year-old Shira Banki. A few days before the parade, Ettinger wrote in his blog that the “shameful ‘gay parade’ events should invite us, those who fear God, to publically demand that there will be a Jewish state where the public sphere is governed by the scripture.”

Sadly, events like the Dawabshe and Banki killings do not lead to a resolution of this tension, but rather deepen mutual loathing. A young, right-wing religious settler who “crossed the line” to join a liberal Israeli group’s visit to the home of the Dawabshe family was shocked by the levels of hatred towards settlers he encountered from the liberal Jews he traveled with.

These conflicting visions and mutual loathing are nothing new. The 1950s, for example, saw at least three separate groups of religious radicals who used violence to try to achieve a more religious public sphere. They attacked mostly Jewish businesses that did not follow religious laws, such as keeping the Sabbath or adhering to traditional dietary rules. They even attempted attacks on the ministry of education and the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. Much like today’s radicals, they also attacked non-Israeli targets while essentially claiming that they — and not the state — should defend the political community. They attacked Jordanian bases near the Israeli border in response to Palestinian infiltrations from Jordan, and they attacked the embassies of communist countries in response to anti-Semitism. Indeed, in February 1953, the USSR severed its diplomatic relationship with Israel after one such group detonated a bomb in the yard of the Soviet delegation to Israel.

Seen from this perspective, the killings of Ali and Sa’ed Dawabshe are not just a human tragedy with a potential to spark a broader Israeli­–Palestinian clash. They are also a manifestation of a decades-old internal conflict over the nature of the public sphere and the territorial control of the Jewish state. Any resolution of these issues will entail not only a bridging to Palestinian communities outraged over the attack, but also a serious Israeli discussion — and resolution — of the question of the identity of the Jewish state. As this attack unfortunately demonstrates, the more things change, the more the challenges remain the same.


Ehud Eiran is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations at the University of Haifa, Israel and the Co-Director of the Haifa Research Center for Maritime Strategy.

Peter Krause is an assistant professor of political science at Boston College and a Research Affiliate with the MIT Security Studies Program. His research and writing focuses on Middle East politics, political violence, and national movements.



Photo credit: Oren Rozen