On 10 May, Amos Oz criticised the so-called ‘price-tag attacks’ carried out by Israeli settlers. The label is used by the culprits themselves to describe retaliatory violence against Palestinians: beatings and arson as well as racist graffiti sprayed on the walls of churches and mosques. Oz described the perpetrators as ‘Hebrew neo-Nazi groups’. The next day, he said:
The comparison that I made was to neo-Nazis and not to Nazis. Nazis build incinerators and gas chambers; neo-Nazis desecrate places of worship, cemeteries, beat innocent people and write racist slogans. That is what they do in Europe, and that is what they do here.
Oz’s sentiments are shared by Israeli liberals and conservatives, who together condemn the attacks as repugnant. The Jerusalem Post said that ‘price-tag attacks fit the definition of terror no less than [suicide] bus bombings’.
But the equation with suicide bombers, like Oz’s provocative comparison with European neo-Nazism, does more to conceal than to reveal the violence perpetrated against Palestinians, above all the violence of the Israeli state.
When Meir Har-Zion died two months ago, there were obituaries in all the major news outlets celebrating the legendary hero. Har-Zion was best known for his price-tag practices. He was one of the founding members (along with Ariel Sharon) of Unit 101, which in October 1953 carried out a retributive massacre in the Jordanian village of Qibya. ‘Bullet-riddled bodies near the doorways,’ UN observers said, ‘and multiple bullet hits on the doors of the demolished houses indicated that the inhabitants had been forced to remain inside until their homes were blown up over them.’ According to Ben-Gurion’s biographer, ‘seventy corpses were found in the rubble, including dozens of women and children.’
In February 1955 Har-Zion’s sister was murdered in the Judean desert, which was then part of Jordan. The following month Har-Zion went to the desert with three friends to seek revenge. They captured six Palestinians, killed five of them and sent the sixth home to tell his village what had happened.
Israeli children are named after Har-Zion. For decades soldiers swore they would try to follow in his footsteps. He is not an outlier, but a paradigmatic example of Israel’s policies of punitive violence. House demolitions, curfews during the First Intifada, infantry offences during the Second Intifada and the more recent aerial bombing of Gaza have all been justified as retribution for a previous Palestinian act. ‘Price-tag’ is the justification that has informed both government policy and military practice since the country was established. Which raises the question: why do the recent price-tag attacks scandalise Amos Oz and several Israeli politicians?
For something to be scandalous it has to (appear to) be exceptional. By making the recent price-tag violence into a scandal, Oz – and the Israeli media more generally – transform it into an exception and in this way help conceal the fact that this kind of violence has structured Israel’s relations with Palestinians for more than 65 years. The only difference is that one is carried out by vigilantes and the other by the state. In other words, to depict the price-tag violence perpetrated by vigilantes as an outrageous exception helps to legitimise the price-tag violence perpetrated by the state, which has shaped the daily experiences of many Palestinians for decades.
This rhetorical trick allows liberals and conservatives alike to displace responsibility. The violence is measured in relation to the Other, the Israeli extremist who is more closely aligned to the European neo-Nazi or the Palestinian suicide bomber than to the state of Israel.