Officials say graffiti scrawled on walls of mosque in Huwara near Nablus.
Israel says it has launched a ‘widespread’ investigation into an attack on a West Bank mosque blamed on Jewish settlers.
According to witnesses, parts of the Al-Anbiya mosque in the Palestinian town of Beit Fajjar was set ablaze by five Jewish settlers early on Monday morning. The arsonists also damaged prayer rugs and copies of the Quran, besides spraying anti-Arab graffiti on the walls.
Following the attack, Avital Leibovitch, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said authorities will bring the guilty parties to justice.
“The Israeli police … have opened a very widespread investigation; the other security forces in Israel will be a part of [it], as well as Palestinian information that has some contribution to this investigation,” she said.
“We see this incident in a very severe manner. We will do the utmost to find these lawbreakers and bring them to court.”
Primary investigations, she said, showed Hebrew graffiti and burnt carpets at the mosque.
However, Al Jazeera’s Mika Hanna, reporting from Jerusalem, said the Israeli announcement has been met with “a degree of scepticism”.
Monday’s vandalism was the fourth attack on a West Bank mosque in the past year. Last May, Palestinians accused settlers of setting fire to a mosque in the village of Libban al-Sharqia. Israel said the blaze was probably caused by a spark during building work.
No charges have been brought for any of the previous incidents.
“In that period of time, there has not been a single culprit found, for any of these attacks or actions,” Hanna said.
Human-rights groups say the Israeli government does not take the attacks seriously enough.
A report by Amnesty International, the London-based rights group, found that “impunity remains the norm” for settlers accused of vandalism and physical attacks on Palestinians.
“This is not the first time that settlers have burned a mosque. This started when they burnt the Al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969 and it still continues,” Muhammad Ayash, head of the Islamic Waqf in the district of Bethlehem, said.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO executive committee, accused the settlers of using extremist and violent behaviour to try to escalate tensions. She also condemned the Israeli army for standing idly by and protecting the settlers.
Emotions running high
Al Jazeera’s Nour Odeh, reporting from the mosque, said emotions are quite high in the town.
“It was a little before three in the morning when residents saw smoke coming out of the mosque, that they rushed in to put out the fire,” she said.
“We heard residents [break] into chants about revenge. Much of the talk here is [calling this a] religious type of attack rather than a politically motivated one.”
Al Jazeera’s Hanna also said that tensions were running high.
Palestinian witnesses to the attack, he noted, are “absolutely adamant” that the attackers came from the nearby settlement of Gosh Etzion.
“There is certainly a pattern here. There will be a settler demonstration north of the West Bank today which is also linked to a mosque that the settlers want destroyed.”
Vandals occasionally spray-paint the words “price tag” on buildings and cars, suggesting that the attacks are the “price” for any attempt by the Israeli government to curb the growth of illegal settlements.
The incident in Beit Fajjar comes as Israeli and Palestinian officials prepare to resume negotiations.
Palestinian leaders are pushing for a complete freeze in new Israeli construction in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, approved last year a temporary halt in West Bank settlement growth – but the freeze has since expired.
“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.