This week, Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Nazareth had a note delivered at his home, warning 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 the 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 on 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 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.
“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 seek 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 concern that the peace talks, which formally came to an end this week, do 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 last month, police were beaten as they tried to demolish unauthorised buildings in the militant settlement of Yitzhar.
‘Acts of terror’
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. More