Settlers Set Fire to West Bank Mosque
Monday, 04 October 2010

Palestinians accused Jewish settlers of setting fire to a West Bank mosque on Monday, an incident that coincided with US efforts to rescue peace talks halted by a dispute over settlement building.

Fifteen Korans and the mosque's carpet were burned, said Ali Thawabti, a municipal council official in the village of Beit Fajjar.

He said residents put out the fire and "settlers got into their white Peugeot and sped away."

It was the fourth time since December that a mosque in the occupied West Bank had been vandalized in attacks Palestinians blamed on settlers.

The Israeli military, which has been in control of the West Bank since 1967, said it was investigating the attack in Beit Fajjar, near Bethlehem.

An increase in violence could complicate US-led efforts to prevent the collapse of peace efforts which Washington hopes will resolve all major issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within a year.

The peace drive was plunged into crisis last week when a 10-month Israeli moratorium on housing starts in West Bank settlements expired and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resisted U.S. and international pressure to extend it.

The Palestinian leadership said on Saturday the negotiations, which began on September 2, could not resume until Israel halted settlement construction completely.

"We are in the midst of sensitive diplomatic contacts with the United States to find a solution that will allow the talks to continue," Netanyahu told reporters at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Monday.

"I advise everybody to be patient, responsible, cool-headed and, above all, quiet," he said in public remarks, aimed at his ministers.


Netanyahu made no public comment on media reports, confirmed by a senior Israeli official, that Washington had offered Israel incentives to extend the partial freeze by 60 days.

Netanyahu's coalition government is dominated by pro-settler parties, including his own Likud, and he faces strong opposition within the cabinet to any further settlement moratorium.

Commenting on the mosque fire, Mohammad Hussein, the Palestinian mufti of Jerusalem, said settlers aimed to increase tension and "push matters to the edge of the precipice."

Lieutenant-Colonel Avital Liebowitz, an Israeli military spokeswoman, described the blaze as "a very serious incident which we view with utmost gravity." She said Israeli authorities "intend to find those responsible as quickly as possible."

The settlers number about half a million in the West Bank and areas of Jerusalem captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war.

Organizations that monitor human rights in the West Bank say attacks by settlers on Palestinians and their property tend to increase when there is a perceived risk to the settlements.

Last May, Palestinians accused settlers of setting fire to a mosque in the West Bank village of Libban al-Sharqia. Israel said the blaze was probably caused by a spark during building work.

In April, settlers were accused of spraying graffiti on the walls of a mosque in Hawara and, in December, carpets and Korans were burned in Yasuf. No charges were brought in the incidents.


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