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When Israeli police descended on a scorched mosque in the Bedouin Arab village of Tuba-Zangariya this morning to investigate an arson attack, they found the word "Price Tag" scrawled in Hebrew on the building's walls along with "Revenge" and "Palmer," a reference to an incident in the West Bank last month in which Israeli settler Asher Palmer and his baby son were killed in a car crash after Palestinians threw stones at the vehicle. The graffiti and nature of today's assault have news outlets buzzing about yet another "price tag attack." What's behind the odd phrase?

The New York Times defines price tag attacks as incidents in which radical Jewish settlers "exact a price from local Palestinians or from the Israeli security forces for any action taken against their settlement enterprise" (others add that the assaults can be in retaliation for violence against settlers). The campaign has included an assault on an Israeli army base and several arson attacks on mosques in West Bank villages in recent months, though today's apparent price tag attack is atypical in that it occurred inside Israel, in the relatively calm Galilee in the north. (The picture above shows a man standing inside the mosque's burnt interior this morning.) The practice has provoked significant backlash in Israel, even among settlers themselves. Just last month, for example, the prominent settler rabbi Yaakov Medan circulated a petition warning that price tag incidents endangered the settler movement. 

According to a 2008 Haaretz article, the roots of price tag attacks can be traced to the August 2005 dismantling of settlements in the Gaza Strip. "Ever since then, the extreme right has sought to establish a 'balance of terror,' in which every state action aimed at them--from demolishing a caravan in an outpost to restricting the movements of those suspected of harassing Palestinian olive harvesters--generates an immediate, violent reaction," the left-wing paper wrote at the time. And violence is on the rise. Reuters notes that attacks by settlers against Palestinian property in the West Bank have risen by 57 percent in the first seven months of 2011 compared with the same period last year. The news agency adds that the perpetrators of price tag attacks appear to operate in small groups that resemble terrorist cells, and that no charges have been brought against suspects in price tag incidents.

Several top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres have condemned today's attack. "I call during these soul searching days of penitence between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, for the rooting out of such deeds from our midst," Peres declared. But Haaretz notes that 300 Israeli Arabs from the Tuba-Zangariya have nevertheless marched to the nearby town of Rosh Pina, burning tires and throwing rocks at security forces, who responded with tear gas. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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