Netanyahu to officials: Catch 'criminals' behind mosque attack
Peres: Bring extremists who torched West Bank mosque to justice; U.S. condemns act.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday ordered Israel's security branches to find the "criminals" who vandalized a mosque in a West Bank village, joining other Israeli leaders in condemning the incident.
"Expose the criminals as soon as possible, and put them on trial," Netanyahu told officials. His comments came shortly after President Shimon Peres urged officials to do everything in their power to bring to justice the people behind attack on Friday, which he said ran contrary to Israel's fundamental values.
"The government, the security forces and the law enforcement institutions must take every measure, with the utmost urgency, to find the perpetrators and put them on trial in accordance with the gravity of the acts," Peres said in a statement.
The assailants torched furniture at the mosque, in the village of Yasuf, and sprayed Nazi slogans in Hebrew on the premises. They are suspected of being settlers protesting Israel's temporary freeze on new construction in West Bank settlements.
Peres added: "It can't be that an extremist group endangers the status of Israel as a state that abides laws and respects religions."
On Friday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that Israel must rein in settlers' "brutal" actions, in response to the incident.
"The torching of the mosque in Yasuf is a despicable crime, and the settlers are behaving with brutality," said Abbas, who called the act a violation of religious freedom.
"The settlers' unruly behavior must be stopped," Abbas added after meeting on Friday with United Arab List-Ta'al chairman Ahmed Tibi in Amman.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, on Friday condemned the act as a bid to thwart the peace process with the Palestinians.
"This is an extremist act geared toward harming the government's efforts to advance the political process for the sake of Israel's future," said Barak.
U.S. denounces attack
The U.S. State Department also denounced the attack on Friday, saying, "We condemn this attack in the strongest terms and call for the perpetrators to be brought to justice."
Investigation into the incident points to the likelihood that settlers from nearby Tapuah are behind the attack, police said, but the vandals have not yet been caught.
Hundreds of Palestinians clashed with Israeli security forces near Yasuf on Friday, after the moque was damaged.
Some rioters hurled rocks at the troops, wounding one police officer.
Settler extremists have recently attacked Palestinians and their property in response to Israeli government moves to curb settlement construction. These protesters have dubbed the attacks the "price tag" policy.
Israel Defense Forces officers in the West Bank have expressed concern that settlers may escalate their acts of opposition to the temporary freeze on settlement construction by targeting the Palestinian population.
The assailants entered the village of Yasuf before dawn Friday, according to Israel Police and Munir Abushi, the Palestinian governor of the district where the village is located.
They burned prayer carpets and a book stand with Muslim holy texts, and left graffiti on the floor reading, "Price tag - greetings from Effi." Effi is a Hebrew name.
The vandals escaped. The IDF said it views the incident gravely and is investigating it along with the police.
After villagers discovered the damage, they briefly threw stones at Israeli forces that entered Yasuf, Abushi said. He said two villagers were hurt in the skirmish.
Abushi met with Israeli police and army officers and expressed his dismay over repeated settler attacks.
"Israeli security forces have done little to protect Palestinian civilians from the settlers," he said.
In an apparent attempt to placate settlers over the construction slowdown, Netanyahu has proposed including tens of thousands of settlers, including many living in isolated settlements deep in the West Bank, in a government program that bestows monetary incentives on residents and businesses.
The move has drawn criticism from Netanyahu's coalition partner, the Labor Party, which has indicated it will vote against the move at a Cabinet meeting next week.