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West Bank mosque torched, Jewish extremists suspected

Palestinians examine the damage at a mosque in the West Bank Village of Burqa near Ramallah, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011. Vandals set fire to another mosque in the West Bank on Thursday and defaced it with Hebrew graffiti. Suspicion fell on Jewish extremists widely assumed to be behind stepped-up violence against Palestinians and the Israeli military. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed) (Majdi Mohammed/AP)

Defying a crackdown on Jewish extremists ordered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, vandals set fire to a mosque in the West Bank and defaced it with Hebrew graffiti Thursday after Israeli forces tore down structures in an unauthorized settlement outpost.

The arson in the village of Burqa, near Ramallah, was the latest in a string of similar attacks on Palestinian mosques in the West Bank and came a day after an unused mosque was torched and defaced in a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem.

The wave of extremist violence, which included a rampage by militant Jewish settlers at a West Bank army base Tuesday, has brought expressions of alarm from across the Israeli political spectrum and prompted the government to announce measures to curb it.

The steps announced Wednesday include detention without trial and prosecution in military courts, measures normally applied to Palestinians in the West Bank but not to Jewish settlers there.

Other measures include banning suspected militants from the West Bank and authorizing soldiers in the West Bank to arrest Israelis.

In Burqa, villagers arriving for dawn prayers saw smoke rising from the mosque, where the carpet and chairs had been burned. Hebrew graffiti scrawled on the walls read “War” and “Mitzpeh Yitzhar,” the name of the wildcat outpost where structures had been demolished hours earlier.

The arson bore the markings of what militant settlers call “price tag,” their term for assaults on Palestinians and their property in response to moves to remove unauthorized outposts.

At Mitzpeh Yitzhar, scores of riot police arrived in the early morning darkness to demolish a mobile home and an adjacent shipping container placed by settlers on Palestinian-owned land, after a court ordered them razed. Despite expectations of a confrontation, the settlers offered no resistance.

Earlier this week, settlers alarmed by reports that the authorities were planning to raze another outpost stepped up their “price tag” actions. On Tuesday they hurled stones at Palestinian cars and stormed into an army base in the West Bank, attacking officers with rocks, setting tires on fire and scattering nails and paint on roads.

The violence against the military triggered widespread outrage among Israelis, including condemnations by settler leaders and rightist politicians who are staunch supporters of the settlement enterprise. Netanyahu pledged a fight “to the bitter end” to “eradicate this evil plague.”

But government critics pointed out that despite the tough rhetoric, law enforcement against violent settlers has been lax in the West Bank, with only a handful of arrests and no convictions in the string of mosque arsons in the past two years.

A statement by the Palestinian Authority issued after Thursday’s incident said that 10 mosques had been vandalized since 2009 without anyone brought to justice, and it accused Israel of “providing impunity to those extremists.”

“This policy encourages settler hate crimes against Palestinians and their places of worship,” the statement said.

Israeli police arrested six suspected Jewish extremists in Jerusalem on Wednesday after the defacing of the mosque there. The vandals had scrawled “A good Arab is a dead Arab” and “Muhammad is a pig” on the walls.

Scrambling to head off more potentially explosive provocations, Israeli President Shimon Peres called in rabbis and educators from settlements Thursday and warned that the extremist attacks could inflame passions against Israel at a time of upheaval in the Arab world.

“The Middle East is burning,” Peres said. “Now is the time to pour fuel on this fire?”



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