A Palestinian imam prays in the damaged mosque in the West Bank village of… (Abed al Hashlamoun / European…)
Reporting from Ramallah, West Bank — Palestinian officials accused Jewish settlers of setting a West Bank mosque on fire early Monday, an attack that could reignite violence as frustration grows over stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
No one claimed responsibility and no arrests were made, but Palestinians said the incident bore the hallmarks of attacks by settlers angry over the talks and a moratorium on settlement construction that recently expired.
The attack came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepared to convene his Cabinet on Tuesday to discuss renewing the West Bank building freeze for two months to keep Palestinians from quitting the U.S.-brokered talks. Settler groups and conservative politicians are urging the prime minister not to bend to international pressure, but there signs that Netanyahu is leaning toward reimposing the freeze in exchange for weaponry and other incentives offered by the U.S.
The fire marked the third West Bank mosque vandalized since December. Grand Mufti Muhammad Hussein, the highest Muslim religious authority in the Palestinian areas, viewed the site on the outskirts of Beit Fajjar, south of Bethlehem, then called on Israeli authorities to crack down on settler violence.
"These fanatics, protected by the occupation authority, are driving the region to a religious war with unpredictable consequences," he said.
The Palestinian Authority condemned the attack as "a serious escalation in settlers' violence against Palestinians."
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the fire was under investigation. In a statement, the Israeli military called it "a grave and serious incident."
Officials in Beit Fajjar said residents saw settlers drive to the mosque after midnight, get out of a car and pour flammable material on the mosque floor and walls. Some sprayed the walls with Hebrew graffiti, residents said.
Within minutes, the mosque was on fire and the car sped away, officials said.
Residents and firefighters rushed to put out the flames, but carpets, walls and more than a dozen copies of the Koran sustained serious damage. The graffiti included words such as "revenge" and obscenities, officials said.
The Palestinians suspect the vandals came from a nearby settlement called Migdal Oz, part of the larger Gush Etzion settlement bloc.
In December, vandals set fire to a mosque in the village of Yasuf shortly after the Israeli government declared the 10-month moratorium on construction in the settlements. The fire gutted the structure. In May, a mosque was vandalized in the village of Lubban al-Sharqiya near Ramallah.
Settlers are suspected in those two attacks, but no one has been charged.
The latest attack might also have been in retaliation for a drive-by shooting in August by Palestinians militants, who killed four settlers near Hebron.
Abukhater is a special correspondent.