RAMALLAH (Ma’an) -- A Ramallah-area mosque was torched overnight and its remains graffitied with racist anti-Arab slogans; witnesses said Israeli settlers were seen setting the fire at 3 a.m. on Tuesday morning.
Al-Mughayyir's village council said the building was badly damaged, and its contents incinerated, drawing condemnation of the third mosque torching in three years.
Eyewitnesses told Ma’an that a group of Israeli settlers arrived in the village before dawn, and shortly after they saw flames rising into the sky.
The vandals spray-painted "Alei Ayin" on the walls, which is the name of a nearby settlement outpost demolished by Israeli police last week, sparking fierce clashes with the settlers.
Ghassan Doughlas, the PA official in charge of monitoring settlement activities in the northern West Bank, said a number of settlers brought dozens of used tires to the mosque and set fire to them.
A concerned President Mahmoud Abbas asked governor of Ramallah Laila Ghannam at first light to give directives immediately to refurbish the religious institution.
The Palestinian Authority's Minister of Religious Affairs Mahmoud Al-Habbash condemned the arson, saying it "indicates the magnitude of the aggression settlers unleash on [Muslim] holy places," accusing the vandals of "planning to destroy our holy sites and creating new facts on the ground to Judaize the land."
He assured that refurbishment of the mosque would start immediately.
A spokesperson from the PA government media center said "Israeli authorities cannot continue to turn blind eye, which gives settlers impunity to continue their attacks. The international community needs to condemn this outrage and insist that Israel is held accountable.
"Israel is forever accusing Palestinians of incitement, but does nothing to stop its citizens attacking our religious places – what is that, but incitement?"
The Ramallah-based office called on the international community to make three requests of the Israeli authorities: to set up investigations, address evidence of complicity by the Israeli army, and ensure rule of law through bringing perpetrators to court.
Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the holy land Sheikh Muhammad Hussein visited the mosque along with a delegation from the Fatwa department early in the day, saying, "the attack on this mosque is part of a systematic policy aiming to flame the conflict and show disrespect to the religious and human values of others."
The National Christian Coalition in the Holy land condemned the arson, with President Dimitri Diliani blaming Israel's occupation and unquestioning protection of militarized settlers, saying the "occupation commits limitless crimes using different means including extremist settlers who are protected by Israeli forces. They do not show any respect to morals, religions, or laws when it comes to attacks against the Palestinian people."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted in Tel-Aviv based daily Haaretz calling for action, saying "I hope the arsonists will be located as soon as possible and will be punished accordingly."
"This is a criminal act that is meant to provoke," Netanyahu added, while Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the arson a "deplorable act [that] is detrimental to peace," Haaretz said.
The UN Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Serry, condemned the attack, saying "the actions of Israeli extremists are highly provocative and threatening."
The official continued, "consistent with its obligations under international law as the occupying power, the Israeli government must ensure the accountability of those responsible and protect the human rights of Palestinians and their property, including religious sites."
Al-Mughayyir, north east of Ramallah, is the fifth village to have their mosque vandalized by settlers in the last three years, four of which were burnt down.
The Civil Administration, Israel's government arm in the occupied West Bank, issued a statement saying it received a complaint that unknown persons set fire to and vandalized a mosque in Al-Mughayyir.
Civil Administration officials traveled to the village, found that Hebrew writing and burned tires were in the torched mosque, and are "operating in order to apprehend the culprits" the statement said.
An Israeli military spokesman said both the military and the Civil Administration "look severely upon the vandalism of sacred places," adding that the military looks severely on "any kinds of vandalism."
In the northern West Bank village of Yasuf, settlers torched and graffitied the Al-Kabir Mosque in December 2009, writing “We will have our revenge” and “We will burn you all,” on the carpets of the building.
In April 2010, settlers from nearby Yitzhar settlement came into Bilal Ben Rab Mosque in Huwwara village near Nablus at 2am and sprayed graffiti, including a Star of David and racist slogans.
A month later, settlers entered the mosque of the Nablus-area village of Al-Lubban Ash-Sharqiya, gathered flammables, and set them alight in the early hours of the morning.
Head of the local council of Al-Lubban Jamal Daraghma said residents living adjacent to the mosque heard cars approaching the building at 3 a.m. Residents said the group tore curtains from the walls and threw several copies of the Qur'an into a pile on the mosque floor and set it aflame.
In October 2010, Al-Anbiya Mosque in Beit Fajjar was torched, its carpets and 15 versions of the Qu'ran destroyed, pillars collapsed, and Hebrew spray-painted in what locals told Ma'an was a settler attack.
Hard line settlers have adopted what they call a "price tag" policy under which they attack Palestinians, their fields or villages, whenever the Israeli government takes measures to curb settlement construction.
Israel considers settlement outposts built in the West Bank without government approval to be illegal, and often sends security personnel to demolish them. They usually consist of little more than a few trailers.
The international community considers all settlements built in the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan 44 years ago during the 1967 Six Day War, to be illegal. AFP contributed to this report