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Price tag: The settler movement Israeli police think just burned a Palestinian child alive

Graffiti scrawled on the wall of the burned house.
Graffiti scrawled on the wall of the burned house.
Oren Ziv/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.
  1. 18-month-old Palestinian infant Ali Dawabsheh was burned to death in an attack on his home in the West Bank Thursday night. His parents and 4-year-old brother were seriously wounded and rushed to a hospital.
  2. The perpetrators are almost certainly Jewish terrorists: A star of David and the word "revenge," in Hebrew, were graffitied on the burnt house.
  3. On-scene evidence points to an attack by the "price tag" movement, according to Israeli police spokesperson Luba Samri. "Price tag" is a loose movement of Israeli settlers who attack Palestinian and Israeli Defense Forces property, meant to impose a retaliatory "price" for any effort to roll back Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

What price tag is and why it matters

dawabsheh funeral

Relatives of 18-month-old baby Ali Dawabsheh mourn during his funeral on July 31, 2015, in the Palestinian village of Duma.

The price tag attacks are, in a sense, an unintended product of Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. When Israel pulled its ground presence out of the Palestinian territory, it also removed about 8,500 settlers. This convinced a radical fringe of the West Bank settlement movement that it could no longer trust the government, and that to preserve their homes, they needed to take action into their own hands.

"To stave off another disengagement of any kind," scholars Daniel Byman and Natan Sachs write in a 2012 report on price tag, settlers "resolved to retaliate against any attempt by the Israeli government to crack down on the movement — hence the birth of the 'price tag' attacks."

Today, price tag attackers enjoy a "whole system of support for the perpetrators, from rabbis who give their blessings to friends who help the perpetrators cover their tracks," Noam Sheizaf, editor of Israeli magazine +972, told me last year.

These attacks typically include, for examples, burning down Palestinian property, scrawling graffiti on mosques and Israeli military property, or physical assaults on Arabs that (usually) stop short of deadly force. Typically, the goal is to enact violence that is bad enough to deter Israel from withdrawing from the occupation, but is not bad enough to prompt a major backlash.

"The fringe has chosen a strategy of ongoing, low-level violence that's convenient for Israeli society to write off as a nuisance," Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli public opinion analyst, told me last July. Israelis "say that it's not really comparable to what the Palestinians do." So far, they've been able to get away with it: The pace of attacks seems to have increased over the past half-decade or so.

This behavior was bound to escalate eventually. These attacks are generally committed by hateful young men who feel no sympathy for Palestinians. It's not hard to see how burning down a Palestinian house could lead to burning down a house with Palestinians in it — which is exactly what happened.

The critical question now is how mainstream Israeli society responds. According to B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, Israeli authorities haven't expended much effort on investigating arsons targeting Palestinians.

"In recent years, Israeli civilians set fire to dozens of Palestinian homes, mosques, businesses, agricultural land and vehicles in the West Bank," the group reports. "The vast majority of these cases were never solved, and in many of them the Israeli Police did not even bother take elementary investigative actions."

Perhaps Israelis will finally demand that these extremists be brought to justice, their movement shut down. Palestinians have of course been demanding as much for as long as the attacks have occurred, but in immediate political terms, the unjust reality is that a backlash from Israelis is much more likely to prompt action.

But there were similar hopes last year, when Jewish extremists burned 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir alive. Now, Khdeir's killing wasn't price tag, so that could be a difference. But the question is whether Israeli leaders come under pressure to not just arrest Dawabsheh's killers, but to dismantle the movement that gave rise to them in the first place.