DUMA, West Bank — Arsonists set fire to two Palestinian homes Friday in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, burning a toddler alive and injuring three others in an attack that authorities say was most likely carried out by Jewish extremists.
The assailants signed their work with a spray-painted message that read “Revenge!” in Hebrew, next to scrawled image of a Star of David.
A Palestinian ambulance driver who helped recover the charred body of Ali Saad Dawabsha, the 18-month-old boy, sat outside the house hours later, still stunned.
“I don’t want to close my eyes because I will see the image of that baby again,” Yousef Dariha said. “I have seen all sorts of terrible death and terrible injuries in my job. This one broke my heart.”
The sensational killing took place at a time of soaring tensions in the West Bank, driven in part by radical Jewish settlers prepared to defy their own government.
The arson assault was quickly labeled a “price tag attack” in the Israeli media — a phrase used to describe violence and vandalism carried out by settlers and their supporters to extract “a price” for any actions against them, either by Israeli soldiers or Palestinian civilians.
Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders condemned the attack.
But the Palestinians blamed Israeli leaders for creating an atmosphere of hate and incitement and for failing to confront the specter of “Jewish terrorism.”
“A nation whose children were burned in the Holocaust must do a lot of soul-searching if it bred people who burn other humans,” Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said in response to the day’s news.
Witnesses said a small group of masked attackers came to the village of Duma, a 30-minute drive northeast of Ramallah, early Friday. The assailants smashed windows and tossed firebombs inside two Palestinian homes at the edge of the village while the residents slept.
“I heard screaming, then I smelled smoke and gasoline,” said Abdul Razik Dawabsha, 71, a relative and neighbor.
He said that men in the village chased the assailants but lost them. “We haven’t had problems here. This is a quiet place,” he said. “The settlers throw stones at our cars. They harass the shepherds. The usual.”
Other relatives said men in Duma have often found construction and agriculture work in the nearby Jewish settlements.
Three Dawabsha family members were taken to a hospital by Israeli military helicopter with serious burns. A 4-year-old boy is listed in critical condition.
Earlier this week, Israeli soldiers and police clashed with Jewish settlers at the nearby community of Beit El. The Israeli authorities were attempting to demolish two illegal structures at the Jewish settlement on the outskirts of Ramallah that were built without permits on private Palestinian land.
Right-wing members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government demanded the structures be saved and Jewish settlement construction continue. “The answer to Palestinian terror is settlement, not cowardice,” said Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who came to Beit El to support protesting settlers.
Bennett complained that Netanyahu’s coalition government was going back on promises to further settlement construction in the West Bank. He blamed Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, for carrying out the court orders to knock down the illegal construction.
One of Bennett’s allies in parliament suggested that an Israeli combat bulldozer knock down the Supreme Court.
The two half-completed apartment houses in Beit El were bulldozed Wednesday. Immediately after, Netanyahu announced that the state would approve the construction of 300 housing units at the site, mollifying pro-settler groups.
The announcement of more construction in Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on lands that Palestinians want for a future state, was opposed by European and U.S. officials.
“We are deeply concerned about the Israeli government’s announcement today of the advancement of nearly 300 new housing units in the West Bank settlement of Beit El, as well as hundreds of new housing units in East Jerusalem,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
Palestinian chief peace negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinian Authority holds the Israeli government “fully responsible” for what he called the “assassination” of the child.
“We cannot separate the barbaric attack that took place in Duma last night from the recent settlement approvals by the Israeli government, a government which represents an Israeli national coalition for settlements and apartheid,” Erekat said.
“This is the consequence of a culture of hate funded and incentivized by the Israeli government and the impunity granted by the international community,” he added.
Israeli leaders across the political spectrum condemned the attacks. Netanyahu said he was “shocked” by the “horrific” arson. “This is an act of terrorism in every respect,” the prime minister said. “The State of Israel takes a strong line against terrorism regardless of who the perpetrators are.”
Netanyahu telephoned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the crime and also visited the Israeli hospital where the Dawabsha family was being treated.
Israeli President Rueven Rivlin also visited the family. “To my great sorrow, until now it seems we have been lax in our treatment of the phenomena of Jewish terrorism,” Rivlin said. “Perhaps we did not internalize that we are faced with a determined and dangerous, ideological group, which aims to destroy the fragile bridges which we work so tirelessly to build.”
The Israeli coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, whose military unit oversees all civilian and security actions in 60 percent of the West Bank, vowed, “We will find those responsible for this attack and bring them to justice.”
Palestinian leaders said that Israel may find the assailants in this one case but stressed that in most attacks and acts of vandalism by settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank, no arrests are ever made. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports 120 incidents of “settler-related violence” in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 2015.
Eglash reported from Jerusalem. Sufian Taha contributed to this report.