You would think that sentencing a group of Israelis for setting fire to a Palestinian cafe is a positive development. But a closer look shows that the culture of minimizing the seriousness of price tag attacks is alive and strong.
Were people’s lives and livelihoods not at stake, it would have been an almost sublime piece of parody. During the trial of four teenage Israeli settlers who set fire to a Palestinian-owned cafe in the West Bank town of Dura, which concluded on Monday, the defendants’ attorneys – as reported by Ynet – brought forth the claim that because the arson was an act of revenge, their clients were not guilty of breaking the law.
Let’s think about that for a moment. The arson was investigated by the Israel Police’s Nationalistic Crimes Unit in the Samaria and Judea (SJ) District. This body was set up as a response to settler violence, which frequently manifests as price tag attacks – i.e. acts of violent revenge by Israelis against Palestinians and their property.
This act of arson was indeed an act of revenge, against the setting alight of an entertainment complex in the Beit El settlement, a fact that the boys helpfully spelled out on a wall adjacent to the cafe they tried to burn down [Heb].
As one would expect, in court the prosecution highlighted the vengeful nature of the act, as well as the mortal risk it presented. At which point, the defense countered with its declaration that the boys were no criminals, but rather, “simply teens that had their hangout spot burned and decided to get revenge by burning a similar hangout spot in the village which the accused thought the original arsonists came from” (quoted in Ynet [Heb]).
Or in other words, the biblical admonition of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” was produced as a legitimate mitigating factor by the settlers’ attorney, something that would seem to undermine the entire raison d’être of the Nationalistic Crimes Unit. (The convicted arsonists’ lawyers mostly work for Honenu, a self-proclaimed “Israeli Zionist legal aid organization which offers legal assistance to [those] … in legal entanglements due to defending themselves against Arab aggression, or due to their love for Israel.” Honenu has a tendency to take on cases defending Jewish Israelis accused of aggression against Palestinians.)
Aside from the bizarre spectacle of both sides citing the same motive as the reason why their side should win, a few other points about this case are worth noting. Firstly, it is an extremely rare example of a conviction against Israeli Jews indicted for ideological (i.e. nationalistic or hate) crimes.
As per the recent findings of Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din, the rate of indictment for nationalistic crimes is remarkably low; a survey of SJ District Police files investigating attacks against Palestinians and/or their property by Israeli civilians showed that between 2005 and 2014, only 7.4 percent of such cases ended with indictments. Furthermore, since the establishment of the Nationalistic Crimes Unit, the performance of the Israel Police’s SJ District has actually worsened.
In that context, the very fact that there was a conviction at all in the Dura price tag case is significant. The sentence of three months of community service, along with a year of probation and a NIS 500 fine, however, merely reinforces the tired suspicion that when justice is served in hate crimes against Palestinians, it is of a token nature (leaving aside the anomalous 30-month prison sentence for another price tag arson attack handed down to two settlers last December, the first sentence of its kind).
In a plea bargain, the initial indictment for racially motivated arson and damage to property was whittled down to a single charge of arson and the nationalistic aspect of the crime was stricken from the record. So in spite of the rarity of such a conviction, which should be applauded, the culture of minimizing the seriousness of price tag attacks lives on. Not only that, but in terms of deterrence, the negligible sentence will surely serve as an encouragement to those inclined to commit further price tag attacks.