Officials fear mosque arson will spark more violence

"Price tag" graffiti sprayed on wall; "Whoever did this is a terrorist in every sense of the word," Barak declares.

311_burn mosque (photo credit: Associated Press)
311_burn mosque
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “strongly condemned” Monday’s pre-dawn arson attack on a West Bank mosque, allegedly by Jews, who scrawled the words “price tag” and “revenge” in black Hebrew letters over the stone doorway and burned copies of the Koran.
Throughout the day, outraged Palestinians gathered inside the mosque in Beit Fajar, located in Gush Etzion, to see for themselves the vandalism that added to their skepticism about Israel’s commitment to peace.
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“Those who did this do not want peace,” said Yousif Taqata of Beit Fajar, who is certain that settlers were behind the attack.
As he spoke, Palestinian men of all ages gathered in the room to stare at the broken tiles now littering the floor, and the blackened holes in the carpet.
On the wall were the words, “Mosque burning 18” and a Star of David.
Beit Fajar residents later prayed in the soot-filled building, and an elderly man chanted verses from one of the charred Korans.
A young teen pushed through the black dust on the wall with his finger to write in English, “Love of Life.”
At one point, according to a film clip shown on Channel 2, children who came there in the afternoon, once school was out, chanted, “Death to Israel.”
Both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak instructed security forces to take all measures possible to apprehend the vandals.
Although the identity of the arsonists was unknown, security sources speculated in a conversation with The Jerusalem Post that attacks by radical right-wing elements could spark retaliatory actions by Palestinians and result in a general escalation of violence in the West Bank.
“Whoever did this is a terrorist in every sense of the word, and intended to hurt the chances for peace and dialogue with the Palestinians. This was a shameful act that besmirched the State of Israel and its values,” Barak said.
Brig.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the head of the IDF’s Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria, also condemned the attack, saying the army “took a severe view of this incident.”
He held talks with Palestinian Authority security officials during the day. Mordechai said security forces would make every effort to capture the culprits.
On Monday evening, Judea and Samaria Police placed a media ban on all details of the investigation.
The case had been handed over to the West Bank branch of the YAMAR special investigative unit. A mobile crime scene unit combed the scene of the blaze on Monday collecting evidence, the Judea and Samaria Police spokesman said.
Firemen still hadn’t officially said that the fire was caused by arson, but a statement on the matter should come soon, the spokesman added.
But the events seemed very clear to the Palestinians in Beit Fajar.
“At 2:45 a.m. a car came [into the village] with six settlers inside,” Yousif Taqata of Beit Fajar told the Post.
“They tried to enter another mosque, but it was locked. They were able to open the door here,” said Taqata as he showed how the steel doors had been locked, but not bolted, so that it was easy to push them open.
He pointed to the stains on the carpet where the vandals had poured flammable liquid, so they could torch the building.
“They put 20 books of the Koran on the floor and they burned them completely. There was a neighbor who saw them and shouted at them and they escaped,” said Taqata, who said he believed the vandals fled to the Migdal Oz settlement nearby.
Mahmoud Zwahra, who lives in a nearby village, said that after terrorists killed four Israelis in August, the PA arrested 700 people.
“Now we are waiting to see what the Israeli authorities will do to control the behavior of the settlers. We know they are doing this because they want to show that they are not under the control of the government.
Now that there is talk of freezing building in the settlements, they [settlers] want to show that they are strong and can do something by attacking the Palestinians,” Zwahra said.
Such acts went against the principle of freedom of religion, he said. The settlers know that torching a mosque will anger Muslims, said Zwahra.
“If they are religious settlers, how come they believe in burning mosques? If we would burn a synagogue, how would they behave?” asked Zwahra, who said that this was not the first mosque that settlers had torched.
In December, settlers were suspected of setting fire to a mosque in Yasuf in Samaria.
A number of settlers said on Monday it was Jews, not Palestinians, who were discriminated against in the West Bank.
In the evening, 100 settlers gathered at the edge of the Yitzhar settlement near Nablus to protest the government’s decision to seal and possibly destroy a synagogue in the El Matan outpost, while at the same time allowing the construction of a mosque in Burin.
At the rally, MK Michael Ben- Ari (National Union) said he was not sorry that the mosque was burned, because of Palestinian actions against Israelis.
“I am saving my sorrow for the holy Israelis,” he said.
Ben Hartman and AP contributed to this report.