"Renewed threat to US-brokered peace talks feared"
(But there is no such fear when Arabs attack us - Michelle)
RAMALLAH, West Bank — Arsonists torched a mosque in a West Bank village yesterday, scrawling “revenge’’ on a wall in Hebrew and charring copies of the Koran in an attack that threatened to stoke tensions over deadlocked Mideast peacemaking.
Palestinians say they suspect hard-line Jewish settlers of setting the fire in the village of Beit Fajjar, near the city of Hebron. The attack is likely to hamper US efforts to sustain month-old peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, now deadlocked over settlement construction.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials condemned the arson attack in an apparent attempt to limit the political fallout.
The settlements, where 300,000 Jews live among 2.5 million Palestinians, are one of the thorniest issues in Israeli-Palestinian relations and the main obstacle at the moment to continuing a round of talks restarted a month ago in Washington.
Palestinian negotiators say they cannot build a state that includes the West Bank while Israel continues to expand Jewish settlements on the land they claim.
Israel last week refused to extend a moratorium on new construction in West Bank settlements, putting peace talks into doubt because Palestinians have threatened to quit if building resumes. Netanyahu is under heavy international pressure to put restrictions back into place.
A senior Israeli official said Netanyahu would convene top Cabinet ministers today to consider US proposals to salvage the talks. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting will be closed. P.J. Crowley, State Department spokesman, refused to give details yesterday.
Netanyahu’s office denied media reports that the ministers would vote on US ideas. In a prepared statement, he said there is nothing concrete to bring before his Cabinet.
Netanyahu condemned the attack on the mosque and ordered his security forces “to act with determination’’ to bring the arsonists to justice. Defense Minister Ehud Barak described it as a “shameful act.’’
White House envoy George Mitchell has been shuttling across the region over the past week in hopes of brokering a compromise, but so far has not been able to find a solution.
At his weekly Cabinet meeting yesterday, Netanyahu said Israel was “in intense diplomatic negotiations with the American administration to find a solution to allow the talks to continue.’’
At the scene of the fire, dozens of grim-faced residents milled around as Israeli police and soldiers tried to maintain order.
“Only somebody who doesn’t fear God would do this,’’ said resident Ayman Taqatqa. “We won’t allow people to offend our religion; we’ll defend it with our lives.’’
There was no claim of responsibility for the blaze, but suspicions fell on extremist Jewish settlers. A tiny minority of hard-liners often damage Palestinian property in what they call the “price tag’’ policy — meant to frighten Palestinians or to express outrage over their government’s slowdown in settlement construction.
“Revenge’’ was scribbled on an inside wall of the sooty mosque. A neat row of Muslim holy books was partly charred, and patches of the carpet were blackened. The blaze otherwise appeared to be contained and caused limited damage. Residents later prayed in the mosque and an elderly man chanted verses from a charred Koran.
Micky Rosenfeld, Israeli police spokesman, said they were looking into the attack. It was the third West Bank mosque burning in the past year, following blazes in December and March.