The Israeli government is currently debating whether to designate so-called “price tag” attacks as “acts of terror.” Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch reportedly favor the move, as does the Shin Bet security service; Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein used to be opposed, but is considering changing his mind; Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has thus far also been opposed. Both sides have valid arguments. The question is whether there’s any way to craft the designation that would preserve the benefits while avoiding the drawbacks.
The immediate benefit of a terrorist designation is that it would give law enforcement agencies greater tools to cope with attacks that have damaged both Israel’s image overseas and its efforts to keep the peace in the West Bank. But another consideration might be equally important in the long run: Not doing so could undermine Israel’s goal of promoting a clear, uniform standard for what constitutes terror.
Israel has long suffered from the fact that most countries refuse to adopt such a standard, and consequently refuse to designate organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups on such pretexts as that they are “important players” in (respectively) Palestinian and Lebanese society, or that they engage in many social welfare projects when they aren’t busy lobbing rockets at Israeli civilians. But Israel can’t credibly criticize this laxity if it doesn’t adhere to the same kind of standard it wants others to adopt.
And though there’s no universally accepted definition of terrorism, the definition generally accepted by people who don’t engage in apologetics for terror is simple: the deliberate employment of violence against civilians to achieve a political purpose. By that definition, some price tag attacks clearly qualify. The victims are usually Palestinian civilians, and the perpetrators make no bones about their political purpose: to deter the government from razing homes in West Bank settlements and outposts. Indeed, that’s precisely why they call their operations “price tag” – they want the government to know that any such demolitions will carry a “price tag” in the form of subsequent violence.
Price tag attacks also sometimes target soldiers. But since Israel’s terrorism laws have never distinguished between attacks on soldiers and attacks on civilians (which I consider a mistake, but that’s a different issue), these should also qualify as terrorism.
Nevertheless, there’s one serious problem with the above argument. “Terror” is usually used for attacks that could, at least in theory, kill or wound – suicide bombings, shootings, stabbings, etc. And only a small minority of price tag attacks fall into that category: The majority target property rather than people.
Granted, any definition of terror has some gray areas. The Basque group ETA, for instance, is widely considered a terrorist organization even though it often provides advance notice so that people can evacuate its targets, meaning it effectively targets property rather than people. But ETA’s bombings at least have the potential to cause multiple casualties, and some of them have.
Some price tag attacks could also fall into this gray area – for instance, arson attacks on empty mosques, since there’s always a risk that the building isn’t really empty. But others, such as chopping down olive trees, don’t even have the potential to cause casualties. And many price tag attacks amount to no more than spray-painting offensive graffiti on mosques, churches or even cars.
All such vandalism is both reprehensible and criminal, and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But do we really want to equate spray-painted slogans with suicide bombings? All we would thereby accomplish is to cheapen the definition of terror and mitigate the revulsion it ought to inspire.
Even the price tag attacks that do involve violence rarely go beyond stone-throwing, which is still a far cry from suicide bombings. That also raises questions about whether equating the two is either fair or wise: Inter alia, it would make it even easier for the maliciously inclined to insist there’s no difference between Israelis and Palestinians; “both sides have their terrorists.”
But stone-throwing – especially at cars – absolutely should be defined as terror, because stones are also lethal weapons, even if less so than bombs. Just last month, for instance, a Palestinian was convicted of murdering Asher Palmer and his infant son because the rocks he threw at their car caused it to overturn; the month before, a three-year-old girl was critically injured when rocks thrown by Palestinians caused a truck to veer into her family’s car.
A separate problem is that, according to police, much of what the media terms “price tag” vandalism is actually no such thing: Many non-ideological hooligans have simply learned that scrawling “price tag” alongside their work guarantees massive media attention for vandalism that would otherwise be ignored. Thus even determining what is and isn’t a genuine price tag attack is far from simple, and a broad designation could result in many people who have nothing to do with price tag violence being improperly treated as terrorist suspects.
Still another worry is that price tag attacks often coincide with demonstrations against outpost demolitions. Some of these demonstrations are themselves violent, involving fights with policemen or soldiers and vandalism against their vehicles. Again, this is criminal and reprehensible, and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But there’s a real risk that a broad definition of price tag attacks as terror could also be used to suppress demonstrations against outpost demolitions. It would be all too easy for the security services to assert that given the similarity in both the purpose (deterring demolitions) and some of the tactics (violence or vandalism), such demonstrations should themselves be treated as prohibited terrorist activity. That would dangerously undermine basic civil liberties.
Thus if the terrorist designation could be narrowly crafted to cover only the most serious and violent price tag attacks, the benefits would likely outweigh the costs. But a broad designation would likely have more costs than benefits. The government should therefore insist that its lawyers produce a very narrow, carefully worded designation. And if they can’t, the idea should be shelved.