JERUSALEM -- A mosque in the West Bank village of Jabaa was set on fire late Monday or early Tuesday in an apparent act of political vandalism. The assailants spray-painted the walls with graffiti saying "the war has begun -- pay the price" and "Ulpana -- war," the latter a reference to an outpost of Jewish settlers soon to be dismantled.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the act and pledged swift apprehension of the perpetrators, whom he called "lawless, intolerant and irresponsible." In an update to his Facebook page, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said, "We must not allow such terrorist acts to continue."
Pro-settlement extremists are suspected of carrying out what has become known as a price-tag operation: vandalism meant to impose a price for actions that are perceived as attacks on the settlers' movement.
The arson at Jabaa comes as the Israeli government is preparing to evict residents from five buildings at an outpost known as Ulpana hill by the end of the month and negotiating with settlement leaders in hopes of avoiding violence.
While most of the international community considers all Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be illegal, the Israeli government makes a distinction between approved settlements and outposts that were created without the OK of Israeli authorities.
In recent days, police carried out a large-scale drill, simulating various scenarios that could evolve during the operation. The residents say they will not go quietly, but of more concern are the many young activists, locally called "hilltop youth," who have set up a fortified camp by the site and appear determined to clash with the security forces.
Danny Dayan, head of the settlers' umbrella organization known as the Yesha Council, condemned the attack on the mosque. "Torching a house of prayer is a moral low," said Dayan.
In addition, he said, such acts harm the settlement movement. "It is both criminal and foolish," Dayan said. If settler leaders hadn't been reluctant to criticize their own, such acts could have been curbed, he said.
Peace Now, an anti-settlement advocacy organization, said blame for the attack lay with the government that is continuing "its groveling campaign" before settlement leaders and urged it to comply with the court ruling immediately.
Netanyahu has pledged to abide by the court ruling and remove the illegal buildings but promised settlers to build hundreds of apartments in their place.
-- Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: Palestinians inspect the damage to a mosque in the West bank village of Jabaa on Tuesday. Credit: Atef Safadi / European Pressphoto Agency.