Israeli settlers 'burnt down West Bank mosque'

Palestinians yesterday accused Jewish settlers of setting fire to a West Bank mosque and scrawling "revenge" in Hebrew on its walls, a provocative move that will heighten tensions amid faltering peace talks.

Vandals broke into the mosque and set it alight early yesterday in Beit Fajjar, a village near Bethlehem. The blaze destroyed several copies of the Koran and prayer rugs. Palestinian witnesses alleged the fire was the work of nearby Jewish settlers, who they saw torching the mosque before speeding off in a white car.

A small and extremist core of settlers has targeted Palestinian property over the past year when they consider that their own interests have been hit by Israeli government actions. The settlers' campaign is aimed at dissuading the Israeli government from reining in expansion of West Bank Jewish settlements, which are illegal under international law. The attack, the third such incident in less than a year, comes as Washington ramps up the pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend an expired 10-month settlement freeze in the occupied West Bank to try to stop the Palestinians from walking away.

The Palestinians say they cannot remain in the talks as long as construction in disputed territories continues, but Mr Netanyahu says his hands are tied by his pro-settler coalition, which is opposes a further freeze.

The United States is understood to have offered generous inducements, including backing for Israel to station troops along the eastern borders of a future Palestinian state, in return for an additional two-month freeze that would give the two sides time to resolve their differences.

Mr Netanyahu, who has not acknowledged the US offer, merely said yesterday that Israel is engaged in "sensitive diplomatic contacts with the US administration... to find a solution" and called for patience.

Meanwhile, Israeli army officials said they were looking for the individuals responsible for the fire and graffiti, and that they viewed it as a "serious incident". Settlers are believed to be responsible for at least two other similar incidents at West Bank mosques, but no charges were brought.

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