Amidst increasing Israeli missiles fired into Gaza and Palestinian rockets fired out of it, one can quickly lose sight of what pulled the parties into this conflict in the first place. Killings, like those of three Israeli teenagers — Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah – and a Palestinian teen, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, may unfortunately seem commonplace to outside observers, but they were not simply a routine Pleiku that the Israeli or Palestinian leadership was seeking to initiate the next round of fighting. On the contrary, these killings were carried out by radical flanks that pulled their respective movements into a fight neither wanted.
Nonetheless, although the leaderships of Israel and the Palestinians did not order these killings, it also true that these attacks are symptoms of a broader phenomenon: Radical flank groups that are willing to take risks to capture territory or coerce the enemy to the (potential) benefit of their movements, but whose extreme rhetoric and actions can also blacken their reputation and chain-gang them into undesirable conflicts. Observers generally know a good deal about Hamas, hostage incidents like that of Gilad Shalit, and the internal politics of the Palestinian national movement, but many have little knowledge of an increasingly significant phenomenon that emerged in the past decade in Israel, which both may have influenced the killing of Abu Khdeir and itself be subject to harsher scrutiny once the current round of fighting winds down: “Price tag.”
“Price tag” refers to a growing pattern of violence by pro-settlement Israeli Jews against Palestinians, their property, churches, and the property of Israel Defense Forces and Israeli anti-settlement activists. Although violence between Israeli settlers and Palestinians has existed for decades, the phenomenon of “price tag” emerged in 2008 in response to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the pledge by the Israeli government to remove unauthorized outposts in the West Bank. In contrast to previous attacks that destroyed Palestinian crops or sought revenge for attacks on settlers, “price tag” is violence carried out by new actors using different methods to achieve broader strategic goals.
The perpetrators are mostly members of the “hilltop youth,” loosely organized groups of young Israelis living mostly in West Bank outposts. Ideologically, the “hilltop youth” hold far more radical views regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict than other Israeli citizens, with 73.5 percent of them seeing “deportation, revenge, and war” as the solution to the conflict, as reported in a survey conducted in 2003. In contrast to their parents’ generation, they increasingly question the legitimacy and intentions of the Israeli government, and so launch attacks marked by threatening graffiti to exact a “price” for the evacuation of outposts. At times, this resembles a case of triadic coercion, whereby the “price tag” perpetrators spark a conflict by attacking Palestinians in order to compel the IDF to intervene on their behalf.
“Price tag” is new but still relatively rare: A dataset we assembled reveals that it represents less than 10 percent of the 1,470 settler attacks documented by the United Nations from 2008 to 2012. Our analysis of the targets and impact of the attacks illuminates two unexpected findings. First, there were no deaths from “price tag” incidents, while Palestinians were killed in past clashes with settlers. Second, while the human costs may have been lower, the symbolic impact was designed to be far higher, as “price tag” perpetrators attacked at least 15 mosques during this five-year period. Although Palestinians argue that settler violence is not new, they note that the burning of mosques is an escalation designed to inflame passions.
In polls taken over the past five years, a majority of Jewish Israelis disapprove of “price tag,” but a majority also think that the state’s light response – whose few arrests and fewer convictions contrast with the swift arrest and likely sentencing of Abu Khdeir’s killers – has been appropriate or too harsh. A majority of Israelis do not want to build settlements outside of the settlement blocs in the West Bank, but a majority of Israelis (and a strong majority of Likud party ministers) do not support the destruction of unauthorized outposts, which “price tag” is designed to defend. Radical flanks like the “hilltop youth” thrive in these opinion gaps, by aggressively shifting the situation on the ground from one of having to compel government action to gain greater Jewish control of territory in the West Bank, to one in which success only requires deterring the government from taking action with significant domestic political costs.
If and when confrontations with the flank have occurred, its relative weakness has allowed other settler leaders to disregard it, appear more “moderate” in the process and receive greater concessions due to the coercive threat posed by the flank. In 2012, settler leaders called for the “hilltop youth” to “join in this struggle, without regard for life or limb,” to prevent the demolition of homes in the Ulpana outpost, then cut a deal with the government the very next day that traded the five homes for 300 more in the neighboring settlement of Beit El, using the threat of the hundreds of assembled youth as leverage.
The Israeli government has gone on to authorize at least six outposts since the emergence of the “price tag” phenomenon, which combined with the lack of a serious response to the attacks has sent the message to a generation of radical youth that actions outside of the law are not only rarely punished, but are often rewarded. Settler leaders and members of the Israeli government have effectively utilized these flank groups to achieve territorial goals, but the latest round of fighting illustrates how such flanks can escalate a situation at a time or in a way that pushes the leadership to war, in order to avoid being labeled as “soft” in the face of an angered enemy in an spiraling confrontation.
Although the slaying of Abu Khdeir is likely not a “price tag” attack, authorities say it does appear to have been carried out by young Israeli Jews for nationalistic purposes in an atmosphere of calls for revenge outside of the law. If nothing is done to reverse the trend, “price tag” and similar incidents are likely to spark future Israeli-Palestinian conflicts or a third intifada. On the Palestinian side of the ledger, escalation in rocket fire over the past few years has been driven by flank groups like Islamic Jihad, rather than Hamas. After the current undesired and costly conflict winds down, and Israelis and Palestinians begin to look inward rather than outward, focus on the true “price” of radical flanks may increase.
Peter Krause is an assistant professor of political science at Boston College and a research fellow in the International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Ehud Eiran is an assistant professor in international relations at the University of Haifa and a faculty affiliate in the Middle East Negotiation Initiative at Harvard Law School.