JERUSALEM (AP) — A rash of audacious attacks on mosques, Muslim cemeteries and Israeli military bases have trained a light on the rising threat of Jewish extremists — and the country's long history of failing to rein them in.
Over the past two years, few extremists have been arrested and fewer still prosecuted in dozens of assaults. This week alone, extremists were blamed for a pair of mosque burnings as well as an attack on a West Bank military base that injured a top Israeli commander.
The violence has prompted rare attention from Israeli leaders, who have begun to call the perpetrators "terrorists" — a term usually reserved for Palestinian militants.
"Israel must not be overrun by a group of people who represent a grave danger to its essence and existence," President Shimon Peres, a Nobel peace laureate, said Thursday after meeting with mainstream West Bank settler leaders.
"We won't let them attack our soldiers. We won't let them ignite a religious war with our neighbors. We won't let them desecrate mosques. We won't let them harm Jews or Arabs," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told a meeting of his Likud Party late Thursday.
Moderate parliamentary opposition leader Tzipi Livni this week said the extremists were pushing Israel to the edge of civil war.
Critics say the violence is the result of authorities' long-standing policy of treating Jewish extremists, usually connected to religious elements in the settler movement, with kid gloves. Instead they have tended to focus on thwarting attacks by Palestinian militants.
"The tendency of the military and the police is to see their own role as protecting the settlers, the Israeli citizens, from the Palestinians, rather than to fulfill their proper role, which is being responsible for keeping order and public safety in territories under military authority," said Gershom Gorenberg, an author who has written extensively about the settler movement.
Hard-line settlers believe Israel has a God-given right to the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in 1967, and reject Palestinian claims to those lands.
The attacks on mosques and other Palestinian targets are known by the label the extremists coined, "price tag" — suggesting they are retribution for government operations like dismantling illegally built settlement structures.
Extremists, believed to be young Jewish settlers, have carried out dozens of attacks on Palestinians over the past two years, chopping down hundreds of olive trees, vandalizing agricultural land and setting fire to mosques.
It took this week's attack on the military base in the West Bank, where assailants set fires, vandalized military vehicles and threw rocks at a district commander, to rouse the government to action.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu approved measures to clamp down on extremists, including giving soldiers the authority to make arrests, ban them from contentious areas and enable offenders to be tried in military courts.
Israel has used these tactics against Palestinian militants for decades, often drawing criticism from human rights groups. It remains unclear how far Israel will go in its push against its own citizens.
Authorities said they could not provide details of investigations, arrests, charges and convictions, if any, in the past two years in connection with "price tag" incidents.
B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, asked authorities to investigate 112 cases of alleged settler violence in the past two years. Just two indictments were issued — one for rock-throwing and the other for torching a vehicle.
Yesh Din, another Israeli rights group, said indictments were filed in just 9 percent of 642 cases of reported violence against Palestinians in the West Bank between 2005 and 2010.
Avi Dichter, a lawmaker who once headed the Shin Bet internal security service, told Israel Radio on Thursday that the settlers' failure to cooperate in investigations makes it tough for investigators. Authorities, he said, must make better use of tools like biometrics and DNA evidence and fingerprints.
"This is a very small group, tightly organized, very hard to penetrate," added Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
Radical settlers have become legally savvy, forming a legal aid group that offers subsidized defense for "loyal citizens" who are "persecuted" by the government. A booklet called "Know Your Rights," circulating in the West Bank for years, instructs settlers on how to avoid pitfalls during interrogations.
Allegations of government lenience toward Jewish extremist violence date back decades. In the 1980s, a government commission submitted a report deploring violence against Palestinians and accusing security forces of doing little to bring the attackers to justice.
Government authorities have sometimes been complicit, keeping legal challenges to Israeli construction in the West Bank tied up in court for years. The government also has failed to carry out repeated promises to knock down unauthorized settlement outposts. Israeli media reported the attack on the army base was linked to an impending outpost demolition.
"For decades, the (extremists) have seen how in matters concerning the settlements — the state laws, Supreme Court rulings and government resolutions — are no more than a basis for negotiations," commentator Ofer Shelah wrote in the Maariv daily.
The phenomenon that Defense Minister Ehud Barak calls "homegrown terror" has sometimes been deadly.
Two dozen settlers were convicted in a slew of bombing and shooting attacks against Palestinians in the 1980s. In 1994, an American-born settler, Baruch Goldstein, massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers at a disputed shrine in the West Bank city of Hebron.
The following year, a Jewish ultranationalist with ties to the settler movement gunned down Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to protest his territorial concessions to the Palestinians.
Mainstream settler leaders, as well as leading settler rabbis, have condemned this week's violence as the work of an extremist fringe.
Some dismiss the denunciations as lip service. The extremists are believed to receive guidance from rabbis at hard-line Jewish seminaries in the West Bank.