Israeli arsonists torch 2nd Jerusalem mosque

AP , Wednesday 14 Dec 2011

Another mosque was burned by Israeli extremists in the Jerusalem, provoking calls in Israel for a more effective crackdown on settlers in eastern Jerusalem

Unknown arsonists torched an inactive Jerusalem mosque early Wednesday, provoking calls in Israel for a more effective crackdown on Jewish extremists suspected in a string of increasingly brazen acts of violence.

The Israeli government has vowed to root out and punish the assailants, who in recent months have expanded their actions from the West Bank into Israel proper. Their acts now include arson and vandalism against Israeli military bases as well as Muslim mosques, cemeteries, farmlands and cars, and occasional assaults on Palestinian civilians.

But the increasing frequency of the attacks, the sparse number of arrests and absence of indictments have also generated allegations that the Israeli government isn't acting forcefully enough against extremists after two years of violence.

An attack on a Muslim site in Jerusalem — the contested holy city at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — raises the stakes further.

The mosque has not been used as a prayer site for some time, police said, and is outside the especially sensitive Old City district. But any attack on a Muslim place of worship is seen as an exceptional provocation.

The words "price tag" were spray-painted at the mosque — a reference to Jewish extremists' practice of exacting retribution for government action against settlements. Anti-Muslim graffiti such as "Mohammed is dead" and "A good Arab is a dead Arab" was also scrawled at the scene.

Other acts of vandalism were reported in two Palestinian cities in the West Bank, where the military said cars were set afire and hate graffiti was scrawled.

Israeli politicians have taken tough stances against Jewish radicalism, particularly after protesters broke into an Israeli military base in the West Bank on Tuesday, damaging vehicles, setting fires and slightly injuring a senior commander.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to "take care of these attackers with a firm hand" and Defense Minister Ehud Barak decried the "homegrown terror," while acknowledging that Israeli military intelligence doesn't gather intelligence about Jewish groups in the West Bank.

Netanyahu's office had no immediate comment on the mosque fire.

Lawmaker Shaul Mofaz, who sees himself as a rival to Netanyahu in the next elections, told Army Radio on Wednesday that the government was not doing enough to stop what he called "groups of Jewish guerrillas."

"These hooligans are terrorists for all intents and purposes," said Mofaz, a former defense minister and military chief, directing his anger at the attack on the military base.

"The Israeli government has to exact a price tag, and it has to be painful, expensive and unequivocal."

Settler leader Dani Dayan condemned the attacks but bristled at politicians' use of the word "terror" to describe the violence.

"It's a grave phenomenon that has to be battled, but I don't know if it's terror," he told Army Radio.

In an unrelated development in Jerusalem, a footbridge to a disputed holy site was reopened Wednesday, police reported, easing a political faceoff that threatened to erupt into unrest.

The walkway's closure earlier this week was to have been a prelude to its demolition. Jerusalem municipal authorities say it is a fire hazard and structurally unsound and must be replaced.

But any Israeli activity around the contested Old City compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount provokes friction with Jordan, the Palestinians and elsewhere in the Arab world. Rival claims to the compound have sparked deadly violence in the past.

The municipality said in a statement Tuesday that the government had called off the demolition plans and will be shoring up the bridge instead.

The hilltop complex is home to Islam's third-holiest shrine, the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, and was the site of two biblical Jewish temples.

The walkway is the only access point from the Old City's Jewish Quarter and is used by Jews and tourists, while Muslims use other entrances from the adjacent Muslim Quarter.

The bridge was built in 2004 as a temporary replacement for an adjacent earth ramp that collapsed in a snowstorm. Muslim leaders charge that any work in the area is designed to destroy their holy sites, and their opposition has blocked any plans to renovate or replace the structure on hold.

Israel denies any plan to destroy Muslim sites.

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