A mosque was vandalized and torched in the West Bank village of Burka Thursday morning, one day after an abandoned mosque in downtown Jerusalem suffered the same treatment.
In the latest incident, graffiti sprayed on the mosque's wall made reference to Mitzpeh Yitzhar, an illegal West Bank outpost where security forces had demolished two buildings shortly before the mosque was vandalized.
There was no confrontation between right-wing activists and the security forces during the demolition itself, in part because but the Israel Defense Forces and the police had deployed in force and closed wide swathes of the northern West Bank to civilian traffic. The security forces began the demolition at about midnight between Wednesday and Thursday after setting up roadblocks on the road leading to Yitzhar. The demolition was competed by early morning.
The mosque torchings followed several incidents earlier in the week: Dozens of right-wing extremists infiltrated a West Bank military base and vandalized equipment; other extremists assaulted senior military officers at an illegal outpost; and infiltrators broke into Qasr al-Yahud, a site along the Jordanian border that is off-limits to the public.
A senior officer in the IDF Central Command said the army would not be deterred from carrying out court orders to demolish outposts by acts of violence.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, roundly condemned the mosque vandalism. He called it a declaration of war against the Palestinians on the part of Jewish settlers and urged the international community to intervene. The PA said it held the Israeli government responsible for violence on the part of settlers.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the recent acts of violence at a Likud party conference on Thursday. The conference had been called to approve advancing the party's leadership primary, which it did.
"Anyone who dares lay a hand on IDF soldiers or border police will pay a heavy price," Netanyahu said. The perpetrators, he added, were a small group of extremists, but they are stigmatizing the image of Jewish settlers in general - though most settlers, he stressed, are "a loyal and law-abiding public."
President Shimon Peres also condemned the recent violence by right-wing extremists. "The Middle East is burning, and now is not the time to pour oil on the fire, oil against Israel," he said.
In an effort to clamp down on right-wing extremist activity, 17 indictments have recently been filed, including 15 filed against infiltrators into the closed military zone at Qasr al-Yahud earlier this week. Another suspect has been indicted in connection with the break-in at the Ephraim Brigade's base earlier this week and was ordered to stay out of the West Bank for 90 days. At the moment, he is confined to house arrest in Jerusalem.
On Thursday, several courts extended the remands of some of the suspects. Inter alia, the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court extended the detention of six people suspected of involvement in vandalizing the former mosque in downtown Jerusalem by one day, though police had asked for permission tor hold them for another week.
In addition, law enforcement officials sought to extend the remands of six right-wing extremists who were arrested Wednesday in Jerusalem's Kiryat Moshe neighborhood after clashing with police. All six are from the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, but had been ordered by the army to stay out of the West Bank and were therefore living in Jerusalem. They are suspected of puncturing the tires and smashing the windows of police cruisers during the clashes, and some are also suspected of vandalizing Arab property or other hate crimes over the past few months. The court is due to rule on the police's request to extend their remands on Friday.
But after receiving a legal opinion on the matter from Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, Netanyahu rejected the suggestion that the extremists who have committed acts of violence and vandalism against both Arab targets and the IDF in recent days be considered members of a terrorist organization. Weinstein took the position that such a step would not withstand scrutiny by the High Court of Justice and would result in a wave of requests that other organizations be deemed terror groups.
Sources close to Netanyahu said Weinstein's position is that the advantages of declaring the vandals members of a terrorist organization would be marginal, while in more important respects, such a move would only make dealing with them more difficult. It would also lead right-wing groups to attempt to have left-wing organizations that have been involved in demonstrations against the separation fence in the West Bank village of Bil'in classified as terrorist groups.
The initial proposal to declare the right-wing extremists members of a terrorist group came from Justice Minster Yaakov Neeman and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch. But Netanyahu's affiliates said that what was important to the prime minister was to take immediate practical steps, such as administrative detention orders or orders barring known extremists from the West Bank, and for the perpetrators to be tried in military courts.
The sources acknowledged that the authority to take some of these steps already existed, but they said it has not been invoked. It is important, for example, that IDF soldiers actually exercise their power to arrest suspects, they said.
Speaking Thursday at a conference on the relationship between Israeli society and the IDF, Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon advocated a position of zero tolerance for acts of lawlessness such as those of the past several days. He said the activists were trying to intimidate the army from carrying out the elected government's policy, and even to intimidate the government from taking certain decisions. A law-abiding country must do whatever necessary to head off anarchy, he said.
Also on Thursday, the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court ordered the Makor Rishon newspaper to provide police with pictures in its possession of the rioting at the Ephraim base. A photographer for the paper had taken a few photos before honoring the rioters' request that she stop, and she had assured them that the pictures would not be published. The photographer, Miriam Tzachi, and the paper's management said they will appeal the court's order.
Oz Rosenberg, Avi Issacharoff, Barak Ravid and Ophir Bar-Zohar contributed to this report.
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