By YAAKOV KATZ
The IDF will be on a heightened state of alert over the coming week in an effort to curb what some officers fear could turn into a spate of settler violence, after a mosque was set ablaze Friday in a Palestinian village in the West Bank.
Israeli, Palestinian and settler leaders, including the rabbis of the Samaria region, all denounced the attack.
Assailants vandalized the mosque in the village of Yasuf in the northern West Bank early Friday morning, burning prayer carpets and holy books, and leaving behind Hebrew graffiti indicating the rampage was the work of settlers angry over the government's plan to curb settlement construction.
The assailants entered the village before dawn, according to Israeli police and Munir Abushi, the Palestinian governor of the district where the village is located.
They burned prayer carpets and a book stand with Muslim holy texts, and left graffiti on the floor reading, "Price tag - greetings from Effi."
"Price tag" is a term used by settlers either to denote retaliation for government decisions which curb settlement activity or in response to Palestinian attacks.
No arrests were made, security officials said Saturday night, but the police and IDF were continuing to search for the perpetrators, suspected of being from nearby Israeli settlements, including Tapuah.
Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for B'Tselem, said that mosques and Muslim graveyards had been targeted in the past as part of the "price tag" attacks. To the best of her knowledge, she said, this was the first time a mosque had been burned.
Abushi said two villagers were hurt in the skirmish. He later met with police and army officers and expressed his dismay over repeated settler attacks. Israeli security forces have done little to protect Palestinian civilians from the settlers, he said, echoing a charge often made by Palestinians as well as both Israeli and international rights groups.
Clashes erupted between IDF troops and residents of Yasuf on Friday and Saturday following the burning of the mosque. Palestinians threw rocks at the troops, who responded by firing tear gas into the crowd of demonstrators. A border policeman sustained a light injury to his face during the unrest, and was treated on the scene by a medic. A number of Border Police vehicles were damaged in the riot.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak instructed the IDF to invest all of its resources in apprehending those responsible for the arson.
"This is the act of extremists that is aimed at curbing the government's efforts to promote [peace] processes for Israel's future," Barak said.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu condemned the burning of the mosque and "ordered security authorities to act with determination to discover the criminals and bring them to justice."
"Any violence is unacceptable, not of Jews against Palestinians and not of Palestinians against Jews," Netanyahu said.
Dani Dayan, who heads the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, condemned the attack as "outrageous" and "morally wrong." He added that "if the person who did this crime thinks that he is contributing to the cause of Judea and Samaria, then he is totally wrong."
This kind of action "causes strategic damage to our cause," Dayan said.
Since the moratorium on new settlement construction was put in place at the end of November, Dayan has called for non-violent resistance. With the exception of the mosque and a vandalism incident in Jerusalem last week in which car tires were slashed, settlers have heeded his call.
Friday's attack, said Dayan, "has nothing to do with our struggle." He added that only a small number of people "pursue this morally flawed and stupid strategy."
He noted that the "price tag" approach existed well before the current moratorium was put in place, and said that "the government will respond forcefully to all kinds of violence."
National Union MK Michael Ben-Ari, however, said he was not upset about the mosque burning.
"I have no tears left to cry after so many of my friends were murdered by the Arab enemy," Ben-Ari said. "I have no condemnations left after synagogues were burned in Gush Katif and Jewish graves were defiled in the Mount of Olives cemetery. Those who want us to erase the Jewish people should not expect us to sympathize with them."
In response to the firebombing of the mosque, Elon Moreh Rabbi Elyakim Levanon said in a statement in the name of the rabbis of Samaria that "we are opposed to all violence whether it be against Jewish soldiers, citizens or settlers, or whether it be against Arab citizens. The holy places of the three [monotheistic] religions are outside the framework of the national struggle between the peoples. We all remember the burning of the synagogues in Gush Katif by rampaging Arabs and we definitely do not want to lower ourselves to the level of our enemies. Such an act does not serve any positive goal and it should not be done."
The Samaria Regional Council rejected reports that Jews were responsible for the fire. The council noted that "some books and a carpet were burned and not the mosque itself," adding that "on the surface, the vandalism described by the IDF's Spokesperson's Office was that of a mentally-ill person or a provocation."
"According to news reports, graffiti was left on the floor 'Price tag - greetings from Effi.' Effi is a Hebrew name. Who'd be stupid enough to leave a name?"
The council called on the police to "investigate well, given the number of times Arabs have burned the Tomb of Yosef, which they turned into a mosque."
The council said that allegations against Jewish settlers were a fabrication of the news media and advised the media "to be responsible and stick to the facts and not to personal opinions."
President Shimon Peres condemned the arsonists and called on the government, the security forces and law enforcement institutions to muster all the resources at their disposal to bring the culprits to justice.
"This is a severe crime that runs counter to the policy of the State of Israel that respects all religions and allows freedom of worship," said Peres.
It was untenable, he added, that a group of extremists should endanger the status of the State of Israel as a country that abides by the rule of law.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Friday that the arson was a "despicable crime." He characterized settler behavior as "brutal" and demanded that Israel put a stop to their "wild antics."
MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List - Ta'al) said "Barak and the army bear responsibility for this crime and for the continued riotous, wild behavior of settlers against Palestinians."
Kadima leader Tzipi Livni called the attack a "severe, despicable act of provocation."
"While a human rights march goes on in Tel Aviv, in Samaria extremist elements set fire to a mosque," she said in a Herzliya speech on Friday afternoon. "We must turn to introspection and contend with what is happening within Israeli society."
Labor MK Ophir Paz-Pines called it "a dangerous escalation intended to devolve the region into bloodshed."
The lack of government preparedness against the "price tag" strategy, which had been in use for years, was a serious and dangerous failure, he said.
"The fire in the Yasuf mosque may have gone out," MK Nachman Shai (Kadima) said in a statement, "but the blaze could yet get out of control, spread and lead to disastrous consequences."
Peace Now called the incident "a Jewish pogrom" and warned that continued provocation by extremists could lead to a new Palestinian intifada.
But far-right activist Itamar Ben-Gvir laid the blame on Netanyahu and Barak, saying their decision to stop construction in the West Bank was causing anger and unrest.
"Netanyahu must freeze these racist edicts to calm the atmosphere," he said.
Tovah Lazaroff, Gil Hoffman, Haviv Rettig Gur, Yaakov Lappin, Matthew Wagner, Greer Fay Cashman and AP contributed to the report.
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