Why It Matters Whether an Attack on Palestinians Is ‘Terrorism’

Israeli settlers are suspected in the latest attack in the West Bank in which a Palestinian toddler was killed. But how the attack is labeled raises legal as well as semantic questions.

An Israeli police officer inspects a house firebombed early Friday morning, with Hebrew graffiti visible on the left. (Abed Omar Qusini / Reuters)

Early Friday morning, two houses in the West Bank were firebombed. An 18-month-old Palestinian child was killed, while his mother, father, and brothers survived with critical burns. Police say they suspect the attack is the work of Jewish extremist settlers. Hebrew graffiti left on the scene read, “revenge,” “long live the messiah,” and “price tag.”

The last of those is a tip-off. “Price-tag attacks” is the term given to a string of anti-Palestinian incidents over the past several years. As The New York Times defined it in 2011, the campaign “seeks to exact a price from local Palestinians for violence against settlers or from Israeli security forces for taking action against illegal construction in Jewish outposts in the West Bank.” It’s a double bind for Palestinians, who are vulnerable to reprisals for actions of the Israeli government. As Uri Friedman has noted, the attacks can be traced as far back as 2005, though the more common start date is 2008. Definitions of the campaign vary. One 2013 tally found nearly 800 cases of suspected price-tag attacks, and 276 arrests, in an 18-month span. In 2014, Israeli security officials blamed a group of about 100 hardliners for most of the attacks.

Like so much in the West Bank, the politics of the attacks are elaborate. The attacks are likely launched by settlers inside the occupied territories. The Israeli government defends the propriety of the settlements, while most of the world—including the United States—opposes them. Palestinians blame Israeli policy in the West Bank for encouraging the attacks. “We cannot separate the barbaric attack that took place in Duma last night from the recent settlement approvals by the Israeli government,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said after Friday’s incident.

The Israeli government, unsurprisingly, disagrees, saying while the settlements are lawful, the attacks are most certainly not. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement condemning the attacks, saying: “This is an act of terrorism in every respect.” So did hardline Education Minister Naftali Bennett. “We are not talking about hatred, and not about a ‘price tag.’ This is murder,” he said. “Arson against a house in Duma and the murder of a baby is a disgusting act of terror that we cannot permit.” The Israel Defense Forces referred to the attack as “a barbaric act of terrorism.”

The speed with which top Israeli officials labeled the attack “terrorism” presents an interesting contrast with the U.S., where questions about whether Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine black worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina, should be labeled terrorism (or perhaps a hate crime) consumed days of public discourse. (Incidentally, the U.S. also labeled Friday’s attack terrorism.)

But whereas the conversation in the U.S. was largely about the symbolic importance of the term, there are legal ramifications in Israel. For law-enforcement purposes, price-tag attacks aren't quite placed in the same category, no matter what officials call them. Two summers ago, price-tag attacks were nearly labeled as terrorism at the request of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal-security service, and others, but the proposal was scotched—reportedly because of the prime minister’s hesitation. The debate hinged on whether adopting the label risked equating price-tag attacks with, say, Hamas attacks within Israel.

“In the Israeli collective psychology, terror is another thing. Terror is detonating a bomb in a crowded restaurant,” Danny Dayan, a settlement advocate, said at the time, while also condemning the attacks (in part because they hurt the settler movement).

Nonetheless, the following month, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon deemed them “illegal organizing,” an elevation close to categorizing the attacks as terror. In January 2014, another proposal to officially label the attacks as terrorism was again turned back, though as The Times of Israel noted at the time, officials were increasingly calling price-tag attacks terrorism.

The question of what to call the attacks could be important for another reason, too: money. The Israeli government compensates victims of terrorism and their families. Typically, that has been a right afforded to Israelis who are killed or injured by Palestinian attacks. But in some more recent cases, the government has opted to grant Palestinians compensation as well, as NPR’s Daniel Estrin noted last year.

After Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir was abducted and killed by three Israeli men, his family was paid. Even in that case, however, an Israeli victims’ organization objected, saying it implied that Israel as a whole was culpable: “I don't have any responsibility for what the three murderers did.”