A Palestinian man praying
A Palestinian man praying yesterday in the mosque that was allegedly torched by settlers. Photo by Daniel Bar-On\
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A Palestinian mosque was set on fire and vandalized late Sunday night in what Israel's defense establishment suspects was an attack by nearby settlers intended to pressure the government over the issue of West Bank settlement construction.

Israel Defense Forces sources said the arson could be linked to rumors that the Civil Administration intends to tear down illegal structures in a settlement outpost near Kiryat Arba.

The arsonists scrawled "revenge" on a mosque wall in Hebrew, doused the floor and book closet with kerosene and set fire to the place. Carpets and dozens of Korans were burned and the building was damaged.

Residents of the village of Bayt Fajar near Bethlehem alleged that a group of settlers, apparently from the nearby Gush Etzion settlement bloc, entered the village before dawn yesterday and burned down the mosque before residents were able to kick them out.

Villagers said the arsonists fled in a car with Israeli license plates after the mosque was torched.

The incident surprised both the army and settlers in the area, because until now, residents of Gush Etzion have not been involved in attacks on Palestinian villages.

However, defense officials are convinced that the arsonists were Jews, and that this was the latest in a series of attacks by hard-line settlers opposed to a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF officers condemned the attack, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered security officials to make every effort to find the arsonists.

"Whoever committed this act is a terrorist in every regard, intent on harming any chance for peace and dialogue with the Palestinians," Barak said in a statement. "This was a disgraceful act and a stain on the State of Israel and its values."

Mohammed Hussein, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, who came to inspect the damage and talk to the locals, said, "The settlers' message is 'terrorize the Palestinian people.'"