Arson attack in West Bank deepens tensions over Jewish settlements

Jewish extremists are suspected in an attack that killed a toddler and injured three others. Both Israelis and Palestinians are calling it an act of terrorism.

Majdi Mohammed/AP
A relative holds up a photo of a 1-1/2-year-old boy, Ali Dawabsheh, in a house that had been torched in a suspected attack by Jewish settlers in Duma village, near the West Bank city of Nablus, July 31. The boy died in the fire, and his four-year-old brother and parents were wounded, according to a Palestinian official from the Nablus area.

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Arsonists set fire to two Palestinian homes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Friday, highlighting the rising tensions around settlements in the West Bank.

Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders are calling the attack an act of terrorism. An 18-month-old boy was killed in the blaze, and three others were injured. Local media reports show graffiti that says “revenge” and “long live the Messiah” on the properties attacked with firebombs around 2 a.m. on Friday, Agence France-Presse reports.

“This is an act of terrorism in every respect,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “Israel takes firm action against terrorism, no matter who its perpetrators are.”

The fire, allegedly started by Israeli settlers, comes as the issue of West Bank settlements is in the spotlight again. On Wednesday, the Israeli government demolished two partially built housing blocks deemed illegal by the Israeli High Court. Immediately following that ruling, however, Mr. Netanyahu calmed critics within his right-wing coalition government by saying Israel would build another 300 housing units on the same site, The Washington Post reports.

The firebombing has been labeled a “price tag” attack, which is typically carried out by extremists as a form of retribution, either against Israeli government moves to tamp down settler expansion in the West Bank or against Palestinians. The arson comes roughly a month after a young Jewish settler, Malachi Rosenfeld, was killed by Palestinian militants while driving home from a basketball game. Duma, the town where today’s attack took place, is nearby Shilo, where Mr. Rosenfeld was killed.

The New York Times reports:

The fire appeared to be the most severe recent case of what Israelis call “price tag” attacks, often vandalism of mosques or the uprooting of Palestinians’ olive trees, carried out by bands of settlers and other extremists, supposedly in retribution for Palestinian attacks on Jews.

The Palestinian Authority holds the Israeli government “fully responsible” for the attack, said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator.

“We cannot separate the barbaric attack that took place in Duma last night from the recent settlement approvals by the Israeli government, a government which represents an Israeli national coalition for settlements and apartheid,” Mr. Erekat said, adding that it spurred from a “culture of hate.”

“Extreme-right Israeli activists have committed acts of vandalism and violence against Palestinians and Arab Israelis for years, attacking Christian and Muslim places of worship and even Israeli soldiers,” reports Agence France-Presse.

Israel has promised to crack down on “price tag” assailants, but in most cases, no arrests are made, reports The Washington Post.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports there have been 120 incidents of “settler-related violence” in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 2015: 78 assaults against property and 42 attacks that resulted in injuries.

The United Nations also reports that 17 Palestinians were killed so far this year by the Israeli military -- most of the deaths occur during arrests or in clashes with Israeli soldiers.

Roughly half a million Jews live in more than 100 settlements – considered illegal under international law – in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the BBC reports.

Israel has sent troops to the West Bank for reinforcement amid fears that today’s attacks could trigger further unrest.

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