Israeli settlers respond to mosque burning allegations

Extremist Israeli settlers have been blamed for burning a mosque near Bethlehem, but many settlers say the finger-pointing is premature and political.

Ammar Awad/Reuters
Palestinian men pray Monday near a burnt part of the carpet in a mosque that was damaged in the West Bank village of Beit Fajjar near Bethlehem. Palestinians accused Jewish settlers of setting fire to the West Bank mosque on Monday, an incident that coincided with US efforts to rescue peace talks halted by a dispute over settlement building.

A day after a mosque was torched in a village near Bethlehem, Jewish settlers' reaction to assertions that one of their own had carried out the attack was a mix of annoyance and contrition.

The mosque in the Palestinian village of Beit Fajar became the fourth in the last two years to be the target of arson. Many Israelis assume the attack was the work of a small group of Jewish extremists who have embarked on a campaign of vigilante violence – known as "price tag" – to derail the peace process and deter the government from evacuating settlements.

On Tuesday, a delegation of settler rabbis visited the torched mosque and made statements that implied that they, too, assumed that an extremist was responsible.

"This is not the way of the Torah or of Judaism,'' said Rabbi Shlomo Brin, from the nearby settlement of Alon Shvut, according to Israeli news website Ynet News. "This incident does not add anything to the settlements."

On Monday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak condemned the attack as inspired by Jews.

But some in the settler community see the finger-pointing as an attempt to slander Israeli settlers in the West Bank ahead of a possible new settlement freeze and the resumption of peace talks.

They argue that despite many arrests and interrogations, the Israeli police have yet to indict anyone in the previous cases of mosque arson.

"The immediate hand-pointing is irresponsible. [Mr. Barak] is trying to achieve political goals," says David Ha'Ivri, a resident of the settlement of Kfar Tapuach, referring to Israeli's left-leaning politicians who want to restart the peace process and stop settlement expansion.

"It's productive of them to give a bad image of the residents of Judea and Samaria (the biblical names for the areas making up the West Bank), and by doing that they smear an entire community," he says.

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