JERUSALEM — Vandals set fire to a mosque in a Palestinian village in the West Bank early Tuesday, leaving behind Hebrew graffiti warning against the planned evacuation and removal of homes built illegally in a Jewish settlement, Israeli police said.
The arson, along with damage to the car of a settler leader negotiating the evacuation, appeared to be a challenge by Jewish extremists to the court-ordered removal by July 1 of five apartment buildings housing about 30 families at Ulpana Hill, in the settlement of Beit El.
The case has become a focal point of tension between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the settlers and their supporters in the governing coalition who oppose the razing of the neighborhood, ordered by the Israeli Supreme Court because the buildings were erected on privately owned Palestinian land.
The mosque torched in the village of Jaba, between Ramallah and Jerusalem, was defaced with the words “Ulpana War” and “Price Tag,” the term used by militant settlers for attacks on Arab property in response to moves by Israeli authorities to remove unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank.
Micky Rosenfeld, an Israeli police spokesman, said the vandals smashed a window to enter the mosque and set the blaze, which was doused by villagers who discovered it in the early morning. The fire damaged a prayer carpet and blackened a wall.
Rosenfeld said that an investigation was underway but that no arrests had been made.
The arson was the fifth such attack on a mosque in 18 months, Rosenfeld said, adding that several people had been questioned and released after those incidents. None has been prosecuted.
Netanyahu, in a statement issued by his office, called the Jaba arson “the work of intolerant, irresponsible lawbreakers” and promised to “act quickly to bring them to justice.” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he had ordered the security forces to “act with all means at their disposal to capture the perpetrators.”
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States condemned the attack “in the strongest possible terms” and will be looking to Israel to act on its leaders’ promises “expeditiously.”
On Monday, vandals slashed the tires of a car belonging to Zeev Hever, a settler official, as he and Beit El leaders met with army and government representatives to discuss the evacuation of Ulpana Hill.
Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, a settler umbrella group, denounced the violence, lashing out at hard-line settler leaders who have criticized attempts to negotiate a peaceful departure from the Ulpana neighborhood.
“Setting fire to a place of worship is an act of the lowest moral level” and “causes enormous damage to settlement,” Dayan told Israel Radio.
Netanyahu has promised to build 300 homes in Beit El to compensate for the removal of the Ulpana Hill buildings.
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.