Police were searching yesterday for right-wing Israeli activists suspected of having set fire to the doorway of a Christian monastery and spray-painted its walls with Hebrew slogans including one saying: "Jesus is a monkey."
The incident bore all the hallmarks of a so-called "price tag" vengeance attack for the Supreme Court-ordered evacuation earlier in the week of the illegal Migron settlement outpost in the occupied West Bank. The outpost's name was one of the words sprayed on a wall.
Monks noticed the burning door yesterday morning, and called police after putting out the flames. Surveying the damage from the pre-dawn attack yesterday, a shocked Father Paul Saouma, the Latrun Monastery's abbot, said: "Not nice. What can I say? What can I say?"
It is the first attack at the 122-year-old monastery, which stands on West Bank land annexed by Israel after the Six Day War. But it follows similar attacks against Jerusalem's Monastery of the Cross and a Baptist church in the city centre in February. Most Christian laity on both sides of the pre-June 1967 "green line" are Arab.
Paying a solidarity visit to the monastery yesterday, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, leader of Israel's Reform Jewish movement, called the attack an "ugly event" and added: "As a rabbi and as an Israeli citizen I am ashamed today and I am deeply troubled by the fact that this is not the first time that such an event takes place in Israel."
The Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said later: "This is a criminal act and those responsible must be severely punished. Religious freedom and worship are two of the most basic institutions in Israel." But Baruch Marzel, an extremist settler from Hebron, said: "We said that evacuating Migron could fan the flames. There's an entire community that feels very bitter." Saeb Erekat, a leading Palestinian negotiator, meanwhile accused the Israeli authorities of not doing enough to track down the offenders in "price tag" attacks.
The Migron evacuation on Sunday – largely peaceful despite attempts by some young right-wing activists to disrupt it – followed a decade-long legal battle by civil rights groups and the Palestinian owners of the land to see it removed.
The community of 50 families was identified in a 2005 government report as top of the list of outposts, effectively new micro-settlements, which had no legal authority even under Israeli law but nevertheless benefited from state money for infrastructure and security.
While the evacuation was hailed as a vindication of the rule of law, the terms provide for the residents to be moved to new homes – also illegal under international law – which unlike Migron itself are not on privately owned Palestinian land but are still in occupied territory. In the meantime, they will be housed in temporary accommodation at a nearby winery at a cost of £114,000 per family.
After the Migron evacuation, Mr Netanyahu reaffirmed his commitment to the settlement enterprise in the West Bank, declaring: "We honour court orders and we also strengthen the settlements; there is no contradiction between the two."