PALESTINIAN leaders have blamed Jewish extremists for an arson attack on a West Bank mosque yesterday.
The fourth such attack in a year, the pre-dawn blaze charred holy books and damaged the interior of the mosque in Beit Fajjar, near the city of Hebron. The words “revenge” and “toilet” were scrawled in Hebrew, hinting that the strike may have been part of the settlers’ notorious “price tag” policy of attacking Palestinians and their property whenever their own Government tries to curb the growth of settlements.
The attack came as peace efforts stuttered over Israel’s reluctance to extend a freeze on settlement building, with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell touring the region as he strived to save a peace drive that President Obama hopes will lead to a framework agreement within a year.
The Palestine Liberation Organisation had earlier urged President Abbas to quit the talks he has been holding with the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu after the latter refused to extend a ten-month settlement freeze which expired last month. The Palestinian President has said he will continue talking to US officials and will put the matter to the Arab League when it meets on Friday in Libya.
Mr Netanyahu is facing massive pressure from his own right-wing coalition not to cave in to US pressure, although media reports in Israel said he was considering reimposing the building restrictions. In return, he would expect sweeteners from the US, including new weapons contracts and US agreement that Israeli forces could remain on the border between a future Palestinian state and neighbouring Jordan.
“We are in the midst of sensitive diplomatic contacts with the United States to find a solution that will allow the talks to continue,” Mr Netanyahu said at a Cabinet meeting yesterday.
The arson attack appeared aimed at undermining the peace effort, in the same way that a Hamas drive-by shooting that killed four settlers on a nearby road a month ago was meant to scupper negotiations. The Palestinian Authority condemned the attack, calling it “a serious escalation in settler violence”.
Dozens of men gathered for evening prayers last night in Beit Fajjar, kneeling in rows before the scorched carpets and heat-shattered tiles that had fallen from pillars. Beside them, the scorched Korans were piled on shelves, while the graffiti, topped by a star of David, was still visible on a wall by the entrance. “These books represent our religion. They are burning our religion,” said Imam Ali Takatka, as he rounded off the prayer session.
He said the arson attack was a clear message from hardliners from the settlements that lie all around the village, north of Hebron. “The timing coincides with political events, in terms of the demand for a stop to settlement building.”
The imam said that a neighbour had spotted a car with six people he identified as Jewish settlers pulling up at the mosque at about 2.30am local time. Two of them allegedly stayed by the car, two went to the sides of the mosque to act as lookouts and two went inside with jerrycans to vandalise and burn.
One of the congregation, Naim Ahmed, 50, an engineer, said the Palestinian villagers were unarmed and unable to defend themselves. “The people are worried. If they can do this to a mosque, it’s easy to do it to people.”
Outside, in the dark street, the village’s young men were organising themselves to watch over the mosque overnight to prevent a possible return by the extremists. Similar attacks have been carried out in the past in other West Bank villages.
Israeli security forces were investigating the incident yesterday. Some settler leaders suggested that the attack might have been carried out by Palestinians themselves, but Ehud Barak, the Defence Minister, appeared convinced it was the work of Jewish extremists. “Whoever committed this act is a terrorist in every regard, intent on harming any chance for peace and dialogue with the Palestinians,” he said. “This was a disgraceful act and a stain on the State of Israel and its values.”