A mosque was torched in northern Israel early Monday, prompting a clash between police who fired tear gas canisters and hundreds of Arab citizens of Israel who threw stones and briefly closed down a highway.
The incident, seen as part of an ongoing campaign of Jewish vigilantism, underscores fears by Israeli officials that such attacks could spark Arab Spring-style protests among Palestinians.
In recent years, Jewish extremists have vandalized Palestinian villages in the West Bank in retaliation for Palestinian terrorist attacks or Israeli government demolition of illegal Jewish outposts. Such extremists regard Israel’s government and some of its security forces as collaborators with the Palestinians to uproot Jews from biblical lands.
In the runup to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations last month, Israeli security authorities expressed concern that Jewish vigilantism could stoke Arab anger and lead to a new Palestinian intifada, or uprising. Today's targeting of a mosque in the Bedouin town of Tuba Zangariya marks the first time that such "price-tag" vigilantism has been used inside Israel proper, signaling a potential widening of violence.
"The price-tag tactic is employed so far by a very small part of the settlers in the territories, but the fact they are small in number doesn’t mean they are insignificant. Violence can escalate quickly," says Ofer Zalzburg, a Jerusalem-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.
He adds that Palestinians perceive increasing Israeli government support for targeting Arab civilians. "I think there is a tendency among Palestinians to believe that public support for such actions is quite broad," he says.
That said, today's incident drew sharp condemnation from Israeli President Shimon Peres, who said the "immoral" incident "brings shame" on Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as "shocking" images of the burned mosque interior and charred prayer books.
But despite such official condemnation, Palestinian officials have said that the government hasn’t been energetic enough in putting a stop to such vigilante violence.
Amid growing worry that the vigilante campaign could stoke outrage at a time of solidarity marches for the Palestinian statehood campaign, Israeli security officials gave out administrative orders banning several Jewish settler radicals from residing in the territories.
A police spokesperson said that they have made no arrests so far in the arson incident.
Concerned about a recent rise in vigilantism, the police established a special "task force" to work exclusively on collecting intelligence and investigating incidents of vigilantism.
"Too many incidents were taking place," said Mickey Rosenfeld, the police spokesman. "We’re talking about incidents that are unacceptable and that can cause friction on the ground."