A Palestinian man walks past graffiti that reads in Hebrew, "'We do not remain silent in face of stone throwing" in the neighborhood of Beit Hanina. Price tag is the term given to extremist hate crimes which target Arabs. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Ibrahim Hamza was up before first light. When he went out to his truck, he thought it was a simple flat tire. But it didn’t take long for Hamza, from one of the founding Muslim families who settled this village west of Jerusalem centuries ago, to realize that the tires had been slashed on 28 vehicles on his street.

Before the media — along with the police and later the president of Israel — began to arrive, Hamza and his neighbors found the spray-painted graffiti, in Hebrew, scrawled on a nearby stone wall: “Racism or Diaspora.” The English translation doesn’t quite convey the message, which is closer to “Get out or else.”

The vandalism two weeks
ago in Abu Ghosh is part of a growing phenomenon in Israel and the West Bank called “price tag” attacks. Initially, these acts
of vandalism — spray-painting mosques, desecrating cemeteries, burning Korans, chopping down olive trees — were part of a campaign, assumed to be waged by Jewish extremists, to extract retribution for actions against Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The idea was that anytime the Israel Defense Forces removed an illegal outpost or Palestinian militants attacked settlers, somebody would pay a price.

Now, the attacks are growing and so are the targets, which include not only Muslims in the West Bank and Israel, but left-leaning activists, as well as Christian schools, churches and monasteries, which vandals have tagged with graffiti.

According to civil rights groups, price-tag attacks have grown from a handful in 2008 to 23 so far this year. One group counts more than 20 incidents at mosques and churches since 2010. There were three price-tag incidents in June in neighborhoods and towns around Jerusalem.

Israeli society is grappling with what to call the assaults. Are they “terrorism” or “hooliganism”? Or, as they are labeled now, “a criminal incident with nationalistic motives”?

Beyond semantics, the question is made more urgent by the fact that few perpetrators have been arrested, despite the prowess of the Israeli army, police and domestic intelligence services.

In a country where security cameras are ubiquitous and thick dossiers are amassed on Palestinian teenagers who throw rocks, many Israelis suspect the reason why more Jewish vandals are not arrested is that the state is not very interested in doing so.

In a poll released last week by Israel’s Channel 10 News, almost 60 percent of those surveyed agreed that the government “didn’t really want to catch” price-tag attackers.

There have been a few arrests. The most recent was July 1, when a 22-year-old Israeli was detained in connection with a price-tag attack at the Monastery of the Silent Monks at Latrun in September. Assailants torched the monastery’s doors and spray-painted
“Jesus is a monkey” and the word “Migron,” a reference to an unauthorized settler outpost forcibly evacuated by the Israeli army in September.

Many Israelis and Palestinians wonder who might be inspiring these acts. Suspicions fall upon ultranationalists and radical rabbis.

This summer, the debate over how to confront the price-tag phenomenon entered Israel’s parliament, where Justice Minister Tzipi Livni is pushing legislation to label the price-tag crimes as acts of terror. That would grant Israeli agencies sweeping authority to tap telephones, search without warrants and hold suspects without charges.

On July 1, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon announced that price-tag attacks in Israel could be defined as “illegal organizing,” meaning that Jewish perpetrators could face the same legal repercussions as Palestinian terrorists. Judges could hand down harsh sentences — not just a few months, but years in prison.

Many Israelis, however, think that goes too far.

Dani Dayan, the former director of the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization of municipal councils of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, said that price-tag assaults are generally against property and should be treated as “extreme vandalism” or even “a hate crime.”

Dayan called the attacks “despicable from a moral point of view” and “very, very dumb.” He said nothing has hurt the settlement movement more than price-tag attacks, which cast settlers as racist vandals.

Still, he said, to Israelis “terrorism is a suicide bomber in a crowded mall or someone who shoots people.” Dayan said a price-tag attack that involves deadly force — as when Jewish radicals have thrown a fire bomb at Israeli soldiers — should be considered terrorism, but not spray painting and tire slashing. “There’s no comparison between this and real Palestinian terrorism,” he said.

Immediately after the tires were slashed in Abu Ghosh, Israeli politicians and government ministers rushed to apologize and promise that the culprits would be caught.

Israeli President Shimon Peres went to Ibrahim Hamza’s house and said he was sorry that the town was subjected to such a crime.

Israelis with historical memory were especially stung that a price-tag attack would befall Abu Ghosh, whose Muslim residents remained neutral in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and helped to keep a crucial roadway through the village open during fighting against Arab forces.

“Jewish Israelis were very upset to hear what happened here,” said Salim Jaber, the long-serving mayor of Abu Ghosh. The town is a popular destination with Israelis and tourists who want to eat some of the best hummus in the country, or visit the old crusader church, or watch the construction of a large new mosque, a gift from Chechnya.

Jaber said that security cameras in the town captured shadowy images of three men in the vicinity of the crime scene. At least one was sporting tzizit, the white tassels worn by ultra-Orthodox Jews.

“These are the kinds of people who want us to hate Jews, hate Israel. But we are smarter than that,” Jaber said. He scoffed at the idea — “a sick fantasy” — that some slashed tires would make Muslims leave Abu Ghosh.

But he said Israeli authorities must catch the perpetrators.

“If the government doesn’t solves these cases, they’re going to have a big problem,” said Jawdat Ibrahim, the owner of an Abu Ghosh restaurant who set a Guinness World Record for the largest serving of hummus (9,016 pounds) in 2010.

“It is unbelievable to us that Israel can catch enemies, very sophisticated enemies, overseas, but they can’t catch a bunch of punks who live here,” Ibrahim said. “These attacks happen in an atmosphere, maybe an atmosphere that says, ‘Hey, it’s okay, you’re never gonna get caught.’ ”