Security officials say they fear that the torching of a mosque near Nablus on Friday could lead to reprisal attacks by Palestinians on Jews. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered Israel's security services to find the people behind the arson, which Jewish extremists are suspected of perpetrating.
After the attack at the village of Yasuf, Palestinian residents scuffled with members of the Border Police, a few of whom were lightly wounded. Several Palestinians were also hurt.
The arson prompted army and Border Police commanders to increase their presence in the Nablus area to prevent further attacks by Jewish extremists and reprisals by Palestinians. Security sources said such reprisals were a concern because the arson attack offended Palestinians' religious sentiments.
"The attack on the mosque was a dangerous provocation that could cause a further and unnecessary conflagration," one security official said.
Israel Defense Forces officers in the West Bank say that some settlers may escalate their opposition to the temporary freeze on settlement construction by targeting the Palestinian population - the "price tag" policy.
Attacks like the arson have provoked similar attacks by Palestinians, which the Shin Bet security service calls "popular attacks." These include acts that require little planning like stabbings, stone throwing and the hurling of Molotov cocktails.
The assailants - whose acts drew condemnations from U.S., Palestinian, Israeli and settler leaders - entered Yasuf before dawn Friday, according to the police.
They burned prayer carpets and a book stand containing Muslim holy texts, and left graffiti on the floor reading "Price tag - greetings from Effi." The vandals escaped. Police officials said they had no definite leads. The Shin Bet declined to discuss the investigation.
"We condemn this attack in the strongest terms and call for the perpetrators to be brought to justice," the U.S. State Department said.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak has 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," he said on Friday.
President Shimon Peres urged officials to do "everything in their power to bring to justice" the people behind the attack, 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.
According to opposition leader Tzipi Livni in a speech in Herzliya on Friday, "while a human rights march goes on in Tel Aviv, in Samaria extremist elements set fire to a mosque in a severe, despicable act of provocation."
In a statement yesterday, the secretary general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, added that the "profanation of the mosque and the torching of copies of the Koran found in it, and the spraying of racist graffiti on the mosque's walls against Islam and Muslims represent blatant aggression against the sanctity of sacred places."
Danny Dayan, who heads the Yesha Council of settlements, said the vandalism was "a wrong and foolish act." He added that "whoever did this does not wish for the good of the settlements in Judea and Samaria."
But far-right activist Itamar Ben-Gvir said that "Netanyahu must freeze these racist edicts to calm the atmosphere."
MK Michael Ben-Ari (National Union) added that "those who wish to wipe out the Jewish people must not expect us to identify with their symbols and centers of incitement. I ran out of condemnations when the synagogues at Gush Katif were burned."
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