Arsonists Torch Mosque in West Bank Palestinian Village

October 4, 2010 - 9:39 AM

Ramallah, West Bank (AP) - Arsonists torched a mosque in a Palestinian village in the West Bank on Monday, scrawling "revenge" on a wall in Hebrew and charring copies of the Muslim holy book in a blaze that threatened to stoke new tensions over deadlocked Mideast peacemaking.

Palestinians suspect hardline Jewish settlers set the fire in the village of Beit Fajjar. The lead Palestinian negotiator said the fire reflected the significance Jewish West Bank settlements have in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peacemaking has stalled just a month after a new round of talks was launched in Washington.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under heavy international pressure to extend recently expired restrictions on settlement construction.

The Palestinians have said they cannot continue peace talks if settlement building resumes. But Netanyahu, facing heavy pressure within his pro-settlement governing coalition, has refused to extend the restrictions.

White House envoy George Mitchell has been shuttling across the region over the past week in hopes of brokering a compromise, but so far has not been able to find a solution.

Netanyahu has sounded out political allies about the possibility of renewing the restrictions in exchange for U.S. sweeteners.

At the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting Monday, Netanyahu said Israel was "in intense diplomatic negotiations with the American administration to find a solution to allow the talks to continue" but didn't tip his hand about possible U.S. benefits.

Israeli media have published unconfirmed reports that American mediators offered Netanyahu a package of far-reaching incentives in return for agreeing to a 60-day extension, including new weaponry.

According to the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, the U.S. also promised to support an Israeli demand to leave troops along the eastern border of a future Palestinian state after a peace agreement, a demand the Palestinians have said they will not accept.

There was no claim of responsibility for Monday's mosque burning, but suspicions fell on extremist Jewish settlers. A tiny minority of hardline Jews often damage Palestinian property in what they call the "price tag" policy -- meant to frighten Palestinians or to express outrage over the Israeli government's slowdown on settlement construction.

The fire left a layer of soot on the beautiful, stone-built mosque. "A mosque must be burned" was scrawled in Hebrew on an inside wall, and "Revenge" was written on another wall.

Inside the mosque, a neat row of Muslim holy books, the Quran, were charred, and the carpet was blackened.

The village is ringed by Jewish settlements, and both Palestinian residents and a settler leader acknowledged that relations are tense.

Dozens of grim-faced residents milled around as blue-clad Israeli police and khaki-uniformed soldiers tried to maintain order.

"Only somebody who doesn't fear God would do this," said resident Ayman Taqatqa. "We won't allow people to offend our religion. We'll defend it with our lives."

He and other residents said they saw a car pull up to the mosque before dawn. Two men then rushed inside, while another two stood guard outside and two men stayed in the car, they said.

Taqatqa said he saw a small blaze and began yelling for his neighbors to come. He said they waited for the men to leave before putting out the blaze, fearing they were armed Jewish settlers. Palestinian residents complain that Israeli police do little to protect them.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said they were looking into the incident.

It was the third mosque burning in the past year, following incidents last December and March.

The attack is likely to make U.S. efforts to revive peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators more difficult. Palestinian negotiators say they cannot build a state that includes the West Bank while Israel continues to expand Jewish settlements on the land they claim.

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Associated Press Writer Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem contributed to this report.