arson - Nir Keidar - 07102011
The suspect in this week’s arson attack on a Galilee mosque. Photo by Nir Keidar
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Dozens of settlers trapped and surrounded an Israel Defense Forces patrol jeep Wednesday night and beat the soldiers, IDF officers said on Thursday.

The incident is only the latest evidence of what officers serving in the West Bank describe as a sharp rise in tensions between soldiers and settlers over the last few weeks.

The vehicle, which was on a routine security patrol, was surrounded by settlers from outposts near the settlement of Shiloh. When the soldiers asked the settlers to let the jeep pass, one settler punched a soldier in the face.

The officers termed the incident "another crossing of a red line."

Also on Thursday, police announced that on Monday they arrested a suspect in Sunday night's torching of a mosque in the village of Tuba-Zangaria, in the Upper Galilee.

The suspect is a resident of northern Israel who was studying at the yeshiva in Yitzhar until about two months ago, when the army issued an order barring him and 11 other right-wing activists from the West Bank settlement. He was arrested because he was wanted for another offense, but suspicions then arose that he was also involved in the mosque arson attack.

His identity and all other details of the investigation remain under a gag order. But his attorney, Adi Keidar, told the Associated Press that he denies the allegations.

The incident near Shiloh began at about 9 P.M. Wednesday, as soldiers were deploying roadblocks along the main road from Jerusalem to Nablus in preparation for a mass visit by Jewish worshippers to Joseph's Tomb in Nablus.

The deployment sparked rumors among local settlers that the soldiers were planning to evacuate Givat Gal Yosef, an illegal outpost near Shiloh that was established around six months ago. Within minutes, settlers had blocked the road to Givat Gal Yosef with vehicles and a series of barricades made of rocks.

A jeep from the Haruv Battalion on a routine security patrol encountered one of the barricades and was stopped by the settlers, IDF sources said. When the jeep tried to reverse, the soldiers discovered that barricades had also been thrown up behind them.

The vehicle was then surrounded by dozens of settlers from nearby outposts. When the soldiers asked them to let the vehicle through, one soldier was punched. That started a free-for-all between the soldiers and the settlers.

The soldiers soon summoned reinforcements, who detained one of the assailants. But the suspect later escaped into a nearby outpost.

"They should have handcuffed the assailant, but it's truly hard for the soldiers to make this mental switch," one IDF officer from the sector said following the army's preliminary inquiry into the incident. "Ultimately, these are Israeli citizens, whom the soldiers are there to protect."

But an officer from the force that was assaulted told the inquiry, "It's hard to now tell these soldiers who were attacked to continue protecting those people."

A senior Central Command officer vowed that the assailants would soon be arrested.

Officers serving in the West Bank say there has been a marked rise in tensions between soldiers and settlers in recent weeks. Even in September, when the IDF was busy preparing for a possible outbreak of Palestinian violence against the background of the Palestinian bid for UN recognition as a state, "the amount of time the security forces spent dealing with incidents involving Israeli citizens was greater than that devoted to coping with the Palestinians," one senior officer said.

In another incident a few weeks ago, cadets from an officers course who were sent to guard an outpost for a week said residents had threatened them with violence if they reported the transfer of shipping containers, which settlers use as improvised housing, to a nearby outpost.

The IDF is now considering ceasing to send soldiers to outposts for more than very brief stays.

Meanwhile, Palestinian residents of Qusra, a village near the Shiloh outposts, discovered Thursday morning that 150 olive and fig trees had been destroyed overnight. Villagers accused residents of the nearby outpost of Esh Kodesh.

The IDF confirmed the vandalism, but said it couldn't confirm that settlers were responsible.

Nevertheless, IDF data indicates that, over the last year, most incidents of settler-Palestinian violence in that area were indeed perpetrated by settlers, hitting a peak with last month's torching of the Qusra mosque.

There were at least 14 cases of vandalism by settlers against Qusra residents during that period.