Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday accused settlers of setting a fire at a mosque that morning in a Nablus area village and warned that such violence threatened to derail US efforts to resume peace talks between the PA and Israel.
Police forensics officers investigating the fire in Lubban Sharkiya had not determined whether arson or an electrical failure caused the blaze by press time.
But the PA insisted that the evidence already showed that settlers burned the mosque as part of their “price tag” policy of retribution.
In this instance, Palestinians said they were avenging the civil administration’s demolition of six housing-starts in the Shavei Shomron settlement on Monday.
A statement issued by Abbas’s office said he condemned the arson as a “criminal act” because the IDF was “providing protection to the settlers.”
Soldiers, police officers and firefighters arrived at Lubban Sharkiya early in the morning. Police remained there for several hours collecting evidence.
The findings were then sent to a forensics lab at police headquarters in Jerusalem, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
“We are trying to uncover whether this blaze was caused by an electrical fault or arson,” Rosenfeld added. “We will have a clearer picture after the tests are complete.”
A source in the IDF Central Command said the army has been working together with Palestinian authorities and the Israel Police to determine what caused the fire. Regardless of whether it was arson or not, the IDF is “doing what we can to protect the security of all residents of Samaria,” the source said.
There has been no change in the deployment of forces in the West Bank and no outbreaks of violence following the incident are expected, the source said.
The IDF is following the case closely, and if it does turn out to have been arson, then “we hope the police will bring those people responsible to justice,” the source said.
Zacharya Sada, a Palestinian field worker for Rabbis for Human Rights, said evidence already showed that settlers were involved.
The arsonists had placed shoes on top of burned copies of the Koran, which they had laid out in a half-circle design.
Muslims would never put shoes on top of the Koran, Sada said.
Second, he said, village residents heard cars in the area of the mosque around 3 a.m.
The IDF could easily know who torched the mosque if it wanted to, because the structure is under surveillance by cameras from the nearby Ma’aleh Levona settlement, Sada said.
Sada added that written requests by Palestinians to the IDF and the Border Police for extra protection in light of Monday’s demolition activity in Shavei Shomron had gone unheeded.
Abbas instructed the PA government to immediately repair the mosque.
He was briefed about the incident during a visit to Saudi Arabia. Abbas condemned the incident and blamed the Israeli government for failing to take measures to prevent such assaults, Jibrin al-Bakri, the PA’s governor of Nablus, said.
“The president has described this attack as a cowardly act,” Bakri said.
Several PA and Fatah officials who rushed to the village in the morning also accused the settlers of being behind the incident.
Maher Ghnaim, the PA minister for settlement affairs and the [separation] wall, said the Palestinian cabinet would hold a meeting in the village as an expression of solidarity with the residents “against settler attacks.”
The PA Foreign Ministry briefed representatives of various countries on the incident.
PA Religious Affairs Minister Mahmoud Habbash was among the officials who inspected the scene.
“The only way to achieve real and just peace is by evacuating the
settlers, ending the occupation and establishing an independent
Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital,” he told reporters.
“The settlers and those behind them are trying to thwart the peace
process and [US envoy] George Mitchell’s visit to the region by
torching mosques and carrying out provocative marches in Jerusalem
neighborhoods,” he said.
The Binyamin and Samaria Citizens Committee said in response that “the
Arab population excels in the murder of Jews, in acts of violence and
in spreading lies. As we saw in Gaza, the murder of Muslim religious
leaders and the torching of mosques is part an internal policy of
settling scores between different Palestinian factions.”
This was not the first time settlers have been accused of torching a mosque in the West Bank.
In January, police arrested several settlers from Yitzhar on suspicion
of setting alight a mosque in Kafr Yassuf. The arsonists left behind
Hebrew graffiti, which contained references to the “price tag” policy.
All suspects were eventually released by the courts, despite attempts
by police to keep some of them in custody.Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.