Barak: West Bank mosque arsonists are terrorists and must be stopped
The attack is thought to be the latest in series of attacks by settlers, intended to pressure Israeli government over settlement building concessions.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered security officials on Monday to make every effort to track down the arsonists who torched a Palestinian mosque in the West Bank the night before.
The mosque in village of Bayt Fajar near Bethlehem was set alight and vandalized late Sunday night in what police suspected was a "price tag" operation by nearby settlers wishing to protest Israel's West Bank policies.
"Whoever committed this act is a terrorist in every regard, intent on harming any chance for peace and dialogue with the Palestinians," Barak said. "This was a disgraceful act and a stain on the State of Israel and its values.
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The Israel Defense Forces also condemned the attack and vowed to "find those responsible as quickly as possible".
Lieutenant-Colonel Avital Liebowitz, an Israeli military spokeswoman, described the blaze as "a very serious incident which we view with utmost gravity".
Bayt Fajar residents allege that a group of settlers, apparently from the nearby Gush Etzion settlement bloc, entered the village in the early hours and burnt down the mosque before residents were able to kick them out.
Residents rushed to the mosque when they saw the flames and began fighting with settlers at the scene, they added. Israeli soldiers arrived in the area and broke up the fight and forced the settlers to leave.
Carpets in the mosque and about a dozen copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, were burnt, witnesses said.
The Palestinian Authority strongly condemned the arson, describing it as "a serious escalation in settler violence," against the Palestinians, according to government spokesman Ghassan Khatib.
The attack is thought to be the latest in so-called "price tag" operations, intended to pressure the Israel government away from making concessions regarding settlement building in the West Bank.
The chairman of the Gush Etzion settlement, Shaul Goldstein, condemned the attacked but warned against pinning the blame immediately on settlers, despite the Hebrew graffiti sprayed on the walls.
"Experience has taught us that it not always Jews who have committed such crimes, but still, we condemn the act," he said.
This latest incident came amid a fresh crisis in direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over the Palestinian demand that Israel extend its recently expired moratorium on settlement building.
In April, two vehicles in a Palestinian village in the northern West Bank were torched with vandals scrawling the words "price tag" on one of the cars, in what had likely been a protest against Israel's settlement freeze, then still in affect.
A similar incident was carried that same week, when unknown vandals sprayed a Star of David with the name Mohammed beside it on a mosque in the West Bank village of Hawara.
The words "Thank you God, for not making me a Gentile" were spray-painted elsewhere in the village and two cars were torched in another location. No suspects have yet been caught.