Jewish vandals (terrorists) get away with acts of desecration

The article on the history of government response to price-tag attacks is followed by one on the vandalism at the Church of Multiplication, Galilee, with some images of the beautiful mosaics.

A nun inspects damage thought to have been committed by sectarian Jewish vandals last Thursday, June 18th, at the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fish at Tabgha. Photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty

Israel not doing enough to stop ‘price tag’ attacks

Despite declarations by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about forcefully fighting price tag attacks, these acts of vandalism and violence against Muslim and Christian places of worship continue.

By Mazal Mualem, trans.Ruti Sinai, Al Monitor / Israel Pulse
June 19, 2015

Following a spate of “price tag” attacks against Arab communities and Muslim and Christian religious sites by radical right-wing groups, the foreign affairs and security Cabinet met in June 2013 to discuss ways of curbing this phenomenon. These acts consisted mostly of attacking Palestinian property, painting insulting graffiti on holy Christian and Muslim sites, setting fire to such buildings and committing other forms of vandalism, both in Israel and the West Bank.

In addition to the assault on freedom of worship and the damage to Israel’s image, these hate crimes greatly troubled various security agencies, especially due to their potential to spin out of control, escalate and result in a regional conflagration if the Temple Mount were attacked, for instance.

Participants at that 2013 Cabinet meeting discussed the demand made by then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, then-Minister of Internal Security Yitzhak Aharonovich and the head of the Shin Bet security service, Yoram Cohen, to designate “price tag” activists as members of a terrorist organization. A decision of that sort can be taken by the government only, according to the 1948 Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance. (Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and the Kach movement are designated terror groups by the power of such a decision.) They argued that such a move would have a deterrent effect.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reluctant to take such a dramatic step. Political pressure from the right, from the settlement leadership and HaBayit HaYehudi Party, among others, resulted in a much softer move: The defence minister was authorized to declare “price tag” activism “an unlawful association.” This enabled authorities to confiscate their property, real estate or bank accounts.

To limit the extent of criticism for his “capitulation” to the right, Netanyahu’s office explained at the time that the decision would provide the police and Shin Bet with the extensive intelligence collection tools, investigation and enforcement against anti-Palestinian “price tag” activities in the West Bank and attackers of Muslim and Christian institutions within Israel.

Exactly two years have gone by and hate crimes continue to generate tensions inside the Green Line and on its other side. The US State Department’s 2013 report on global terrorism, issued in April 2014, determined that Jewish terrorism was growing but Israel, in most cases, was not putting the perpetrators on trial. According to the report, five mosques were desecrated that year, as were three churches in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Data published on June 19 by Israeli daily Haaretz, indicate that since 2011, 17 places of Muslim and Christian worship were set on fire in Israel. To date, not a single indictment has been handed down in any of the cases.

On June 18, Israel’s new right-wing government was faced for the first time with a serious hate crime — an arson attack at the Roman Catholic Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish in Tabgha. Luckily, only two of the volunteers who were there at the time sustained minor injuries. The attackers sprayed malicious graffiti on the church walls and fled. This is not the first hate crime at this important church near Tiberias, where, according to Christian belief, Jesus fed throngs after loaves and fishes miraculously multiplied. In April 2014, unidentified vandals damaged a cross and benches in the church courtyard; they have not been caught to date.

A priest walks past Hebrew graffiti reading ‘idols will be cast out’ at the damaged Church of the Multiplication. Photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty

When news broke of the church fire in the early morning hours, condemnations were issued by the right and the left. It took Netanyahu all day to issue a statement denouncing the attack. His office only put out a statement at about 5 p.m., saying the prime minister had spoken with Shin Bet Director Yoram Cohen and instructed him to conduct a speedy investigation of the church arson. Cohen may not have been too pleased with the way Netanyahu used him to prove how determined he is to deal with the hate crimes, especially given that Netanyahu was the one who two years ago overruled the proposal, supported by Cohen, to designate such acts as terrorism with all the serious implications involved.

Netanyahu is good with words and declarations, and to minimize the damage to Israel’s image throughout the Christian world, he stressed in his statement that the “outrageous” arson attack was “an attack on us all,” promising to bring those responsible for this “despicable act” to justice.

In examining Netanyahu’s determination to tackle hate crimes since he returned to the premier’s seat in 2009, a grim picture emerges. Most of the perpetrators of “price tag” attacks are never caught. Netanyahu condemns, but that’s the extent of his activity.

Other than that, Netanyahu and his top ministers contribute to the climate of radicalization against Palestinians and the Israeli left, which was even compared during the last election campaign to the Islamic State. Pronouncements such as those made by Netanyahu on election day against Israel’s Arab citizens, warning that Israeli Arabs were “voting in droves,” or those of ministers such as Miri Regev and Naftali Bennett along with their populist moves, are fertile ground for the “price tag” phenomenon.

Meretz Party Chair Zehava Gal-On, who supported Livni’s 2013 initiative to designate “price tag” criminals as terror activists, told Al-Monitor that since then the situation has actually got worse. According to her, “marginal groups have moved front stage, encouraged by a climate of incitement and harsh rhetoric, and the most serious thing is that there’s no discernible enforcement activity against the incitement and the crimes against mosques and churches. The prime minister may have spoken with the head of the Shin Bet agency, but he is more concerned with calming the Christian world. There’s no real will to fight the phenomenon.”

Knesset member Yusuf Agbaria of the Joint List of predominately Arab parties also thinks there is no rush to stem the trend. He told Al-Monitor, “It’s strange that the police fails over and over to find those responsible and bring them to justice. The result is a green light to these terrorists to go on with their actions. This failure increases the Arab public’s distrust of the police and its actions.”

According to Agbaria, the “price tag” organizations are fuelled by the hatred and racism that have become an integral part of the political landscape in Israel, even on the prime minister’s part.

Carmi Gillon, who served as Shin Bet director at the time of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, has been repeatedly warning in recent years against the dangers inherent in the lax handling of the “price tag” phenomenon. He argues that the Shin Bet could stop “price tag” activities in a short time if a decision were made to combat such attacks just like any other terrorist activity.

But, as mentioned previously, despite the dangers inherent in this phenomenon, the government of Israel does not appear inclined to declare war. Whereas in the previous two governments, then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Livni tried to advance actions that would staunch the phenomenon, other than issuing condemnations and pretty statements, Netanyahu’s right-wing government will continue unabatedly to bury its head in the sand.

Whereas Livni tried in 2013 to bring about the designation of “price tag” assailants as terrorists, in the Regev, Bennett and the newly appointed Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked government, no one would even dare raise such an idea.

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

Section of the mosaic floor of the church. The 5th CE mosaics have been restored. They are the ‘earliest known examples of figured pavement in Christian art in the Holy Land. The mosaics in the two transepts depict various wetland birds and plants, with a prominent place given to the lotus flower. This flower, which is not indigenous to the area, suggests the artist’s use of a Nilotic landscape popular in Roman and early-Byzantine art. All the other motifs depict plants and animals from the Galilee. The mosaics found in front of the altar depict two fish flanking a basket containing loaves of bread.’

Catholic church in Israel badly damaged by suspected arson attack

Police investigate whether church on traditional site of Jesus’s miracle of loaves and fish at the Sea of Galilee was attacked by Jewish extremists

By Associated Press in Tabgha/ Guardian
June 18, 2015

A fire ripped through one of the most famous Catholic churches in Israel on Thursday, damaging the roof and burning prayer books in what authorities believe was an attack by Jewish extremists.

The fire broke out at the Church of the Multiplication in the middle of the night, causing extensive damage to the inside and outside of the building, said an Israeli police spokesman.

The modern building is built on the remains of a fifth-century Byzantine church. A Byzantine mosaic floor was left unharmed by the fire. The church, which marks the traditional spot of Jesus’s miracle of the loaves and fish, is located in Tabgha on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel and is one of the most popular stops for Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land.

Father Gregory Collins, head of the Order of Saint Benedict in Israel, which maintains the site, said more than 5,000 people visit the church daily. He said it would be closed for the next three days due to the fire damage.

“It’s deplorable, absolutely deplorable. I consider such an attack to be not just an attack on a religious site, on a sanctuary, but also on one of the most visited places in Israel,” he said. “It is also an attack on freedom of speech, democracy and the right to live here.”

Father Matthias Karl, a German monk at the church, said a souvenir shop, an office for pilgrims and a meeting room were badly damaged, and bibles and prayer books were destroyed. “The fire was very active,” he said, but added that the prayer area of the church was unaffected. A monk and a church volunteer were taken to hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation , he said.

A passage from a Jewish prayer, calling for the elimination of idol worship, was found sprayed in red paint on a wall outside the church.

The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, condemned the incident and ordered the head of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency to “conduct a full and speedy investigation”.

Two ducks on a lotus flower. Photo from Sonia Halliday Photo Library

“This morning’s outrageous arson attack on a church is an attack on us all. In Israel freedom of worship is one of our core values and is guaranteed under the law,” Netanyahu said. “Those responsible for this despicable crime will face the full force of the law. Hate and intolerance have no place in our society.”

The Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, said authorities would make every effort to apprehend those responsible. “Such terrible desecration of an ancient and holy place of prayer is an attack on the very fabric of life in our country, where people of different faiths seek to live together in harmony and mutual tolerance and respect,” he said.

Police said they initially arrested 16 youths, all religious Jewish seminary students from West Bank settlements, but released them shortly thereafter. Their lawyer, Itamar Ben Gvir, told Israeli Army Radio the police had no evidence against the youths and that they were under suspicion simply for looking like young settlers.

In recent years, mosques and churches have been targeted by vandals in similar attacks. They are often attributed to extremist Jews from West Bank settlements. Such attacks have been widely condemned across the political spectrum in Israel, though few arrests have been made.

Last year, a group of mostly Jewish youths attacked the Church of the Multiplication’s outdoor prayer area along the Sea of Galilee, pelting worshippers with stones, destroying a cross and throwing benches into the lake, Karl said.

Nahum Weisfish, a rabbi from Jerusalem, went to the church with an interfaith delegation to express sympathy and condemn the attack.

He said the site might have been targeted because it housed a synagogue some 2,000 years ago. “But either way it is forbidden for this to be done like this. We came to condemn this,” he said.

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