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Ex-Israeli officials: 'Price tag' attacks could start intifada

Oct. 5, 2011 6:08 P.M. (Updated: Oct. 6, 2011 9:45 P.M.)
JERUSALEM (Reuters) -- Following a recent increase in 'Price tag' attacks on Palestinian holy sites, former high-ranking Israeli security officials warned of the risk of a surge in violence across the region.

The attack this week on a mosque in the village of Tuba-Zangariya in northern Israel, where the interior prayer hall and religious emblems were set on fire, was the most recent in a series of attacks that Jewish settlers label "Price Tag" attacks, signifying payback for any Israeli curbs on settlements in the West Bank.

By spreading a yearlong trail of torched mosques and vehicles from occupied territory into Israel, the elusive militants now threaten not only peacemaking with Palestinians but an already strained coexistence between Israel's Jewish and minority Palestinian citizens.

Israeli-Palestinians, the vast majority of them Muslim and descended from Palestinians who remained while others fled or were driven away in fighting over Israel's establishment, make up 20 percent of Israel's population.

Extreme right-wing settler leader Itamar Ben Gvir said on Tuesday that the attack this week did not come as a surprise as frustration has been growing.

"It was not surprising, the writing was on the wall, because a population that feels that they are being abandoned, harmed and kicked over and over again, it is only natural that individuals from within that population will come out and commit incidents."

"I repeat, my call is against the government of Israel, against Bibi (Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu), against (Defense Minister Ehud) Barak, against Dorit Beinish -- the President of the Supreme Court -- they are responsible for what happened," said Ben Gvir who lives in the settlement of Kiryat Arba, in the divided city of Hebron.

Kiryat Arba is home to some 800 settlers who live alongside Hebron's approximately 30,000 Palestinian residents.

Driven by ideology, Jewish settlers claim a biblical right to the West Bank, land the Palestinians want for a future state. Tension between the settlers and Palestinians often spills into violence.

Gvir believes the recent attack on the Tuba-Zangariya mosque, located within Israel proper, was because of a heavier Israeli security presence around the Palestinian areas of the West Bank.

"I imagine that they chose that village (in Israel) because in this area (the West Bank) we can see the guarding, we can see the police's enthusiasm to guard every mosque in this area and in my opinion, what happened is a result of frustration," he said.

Local police said they had set up a special task force to investigate the suspected extremist attack in the Bedouin village.

But Israeli police have not arrested any suspects for what is the latest of four mosques torched in the past year, two in Israel and two in the West Bank. They suspect the "price tag" group may be responsible based on the group's slogan having been daubed on one of the mosque's stone walls.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the attack, saying it offended the nation's core values.

Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israeli police, said four males, most of them West Bank settlers, had been arrested and questioned for previous assaults attributed to the "price tag" group, however all were released without charge.

"Over the last year there have been a large number of incidents that have taken place, specifically in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). The Israeli police have set up a special task force team to deal specifically with those incidents, which is including both stoning of Palestinian vehicles, unfortunately a number of damage that was caused to mosques both in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and the Israeli police will continue to do everything possible in the near future both to prevent further incidents from taking place and we made approximately four arrests over the last month involving those specific incidents," said Rosenfeld.

Former security chiefs cautioned that the "price tag" assaults -- suspected of including recent torchings of Palestinian cars and uprootings of hundreds of olive trees and grapevines -- could explode in a new wave of violence.

Avraham Dichter, a former head of Israel's internal security service, the Shin Bet, said that while not as lethal as a Jewish group that killed three Palestinians and injured dozens in a series of attacks in the 1980's, the recent incidents were no less sensitive.

"We have to remember in the past we have faced tough terrorists, who carried out -- Jewish terrorists -- who carried out terror attacks against Palestinians sometimes against leaders, amongst the Palestinians by putting bombs in their vehicles, I'm speaking about 30 years ago, it created some kind of deterrence and maybe that's the reason why today we see, if we may say, more light events, but it doesn't mean that it's less sensitive than the former ones," Dichter said.

Dicter believes that any attack on a sensitive holy site could easily start a new wave of Palestinian violence, an intifada.

"Even a stupid terrorist, if he succeeds in carrying out a terror attack towards a sensitive target, like Temple Mount, like al-Aqsa Mosque, you can find yourself in no time in the middle of an intifada not because there were fatalities but just because a very important and sensitive target was hit," he said.

Menachem Landow, a former official within the Shin Bet security agency, added that an incident like the recent attack on the Palestinian population within Israel could in itself inflame the region.

"It is a problem of the state of Israel, everything that has to do with the rule of law. It could inflame the area and cause another intifada or incidents alike to the extent that it could lead to bloodshed" Landau said.

Landau blamed the settler groups for not co-operating with the security services over the 'price tag' attacks.

"One of the things that bothers me is that the leaders of the settlements are constantly condemning. The condemnation is not enough, they need to co-operate with the security services, help them because without the help from the surroundings no intelligence source has a chance," he added.

Settler-related incidents resulting in Palestinian injuries and damage to property are up more than 50 percent this year, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which documents violence in the Palestinian territories.
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