Human rights groups accuse Israel of failing to arrest most settlers involved in violence against Palestinians [Reuters]

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has approved measures to crack down on violent ultra-nationalist Jewish settlers after a rampage at an occupied West Bank military base and torching of a mosque's facade stirred public outrage.

Among the measures approved by Netanyahu on Wednesday were administrative detention of suspects, trials of some suspects in military rather than civil courts, and ejection from the West Bank of settlers suspected of inciting violence.

Israeli soldiers will also be empowered to carry out arrests, a statement from Netanyahu's office said. Until now Israeli police have had to be called to a crime scene to conduct arrests, giving perpetrators time to flee.

But the prime minister rejected calls from the justice and internal security ministers to classify violent right-wing groups as "terrorists".

"Anyone who raises a hand against Israeli soldiers or police will be severely punished," Netanyahu said.

He said such suspects would be dealt with in the same way as protesters in Bilin, a Palestinian village where clashes, sometimes deadly, over the Israeli separation barrier built across occupied land occur regularly.

Attacks by violent Jewish groups have in the past generally targeted Palestinians and Arabs, but in recent months they have been increasingly directed at the army and left-wing Israelis.

Soldiers attacked

Settlers angered over rumours that the army was about to oust them from hilltop enclaves threw rocks at a commander and his deputy at a West Bank military base on Monday, injuring one of them, and smashed windows and slashed vehicle tyres.

Netanyahu, in a statement, said that after consulting with security chiefs he would take the rare step of "immediately" ordering so-called administrative arrests of Israelis involved in such violence, jailing them without trial.

The measure has been used in the past against Israeli ultra-nationalists but is more commonly employed against Palestinians suspected of involvement with armed groups.

Human rights groups have long accused Israel of failing to arrest or try most settlers accused of involvement in violence against Palestinians. Suspects have been arrested but rarely put on trial.

On Wednesday, Jews burnt the facade of a Jerusalem mosque and scrawled "Death to the Arabs" on its walls, an assault blamed on a group that has vandalised other Muslim houses of worship over the past two years.

The incidents have angered some in Israel, where people worry that repeated settler assaults on Muslim holy sites might rekindle serious Israeli-Palestinian violence after months of relative calm that has prevailed despite a long impasse in negotiations.

In an unusually swift response after the Jerusalem mosque incident, Israeli police said they had arrested five Israeli men suspected of involvement in "nationalistically motivated crime".

Source: Agencies