Jewish extremists tried to torch an old mosque in Jerusalem on Wednesday, spurring the United States to condemn the attack on the disused structure in the west of the city and call for calm.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms today’s burning and vandalising of the mosque in Jerusalem,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
The attack on the mosque saw unidentified attackers try to set the building alight and daub its exterior walls with racist anti-Arab slogans written in Hebrew.
It was the latest in a slew of so-called “price tag” incidents — revenge attacks by Jewish extremists which generally target Palestinians and Arabs, although they have also been directed at the army and leftwing Israelis.
The attack targeted the Nebi Akasha mosque, which dates back to the 13th century and had not been used as a place of worship since Israel’s creation in 1948. The city council currently uses the building as a storage facility.
“During the night, there was an attempt to set fire to a disused mosque in the city centre,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP, saying an investigation had been opened into the attack just off Jaffa Street, west Jerusalem’s main shopping artery.
Later on Wednesday, police detained six Jewish men in a religious neighbourhood of Jerusalem on suspicion of involvement in recent violence and vandalism against Arabs, a spokeswoman told AFP.
The suspects are settlers who were barred from returning to the West Bank years ago, but were not believed to be connected to the mosque arson, nor to several other attacks this week on troops in the West Bank, police said.
The mosque attack was swiftly condemned by the Al Aqsa Foundation, an offshoot of Israel’s Islamic Movement, which said it held Israel “fully responsible for this terrible crime” and for not acting against the perpetrators.
Arab Israeli MP Mohammed Barake also lashed out at his fellow parliamentarians for fanning the flames of racial hatred with a spate of draft legislation targeting Israel’s Arab minority.
“Responsibility for the mosque burning does not only lie with the gang of fascists who carried it out, but also with some of the scumbags among the MPs and ministers,” he said in a statement.
“Those MPs should not pretend they are shocked when the draft laws they back become a raging fire that devours mosques,” he said.
Opposition head Tzipi Livni called the arson “a hate crime” carried out by “a constantly growing group of extreme Israelis who are forcefully trying to turn Israel to a different state which — like them — is lawless.”
And Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO which fights against the manipulation of archaeological sites for political gain, said the attack had damaged an important aspect of local heritage.
“The destruction of the antiquities, in this case probably by Israelis, is part of the process of erasure of ‘the other’ — of everything that doesn’t suit the extremist and one-dimensional ideology of certain Israeli groups,” it said in a statement.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat also condemned the attack, and urged “zero tolerance” towards such acts.
Among the words scrawled on the mosque’s walls were the names of two settlement outposts slated for demolition — such attacks are often linked to government attempts to remove outposts.
Overnight, there were three more “price tag” attacks in the northern West Bank where Palestinian cars were torched in three separate villages and Hebrew graffiti found nearby, the Israeli military and Palestinian witnesses said.
The arson attack in Jerusalem occurred just 24 hours after settlers attacked troops and an army base in the northern West Bank in an incident that deeply angered Israel’s leadership.
Several hours earlier, settlers also broke into a closed military zone along the Jordanian border, with police still holding 15 people in custody — more than half of them minors.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Wednesday he would heighten enforcement against Jews who attack security forces, enabling the military to arrest Israeli citizens in the West Bank and to try them in military courts.
Over the past 10 days, police have arrested 16 people in connection with recent price tag attacks.
Among them are the six detained in Wednesday’s raid, six minors arrested on December 4 and a soldier detained last week.
Meanwhile, Israel reopened a controversial wooden access ramp to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem just 48 hours after it was closed on safety grounds in a move that sparked Muslim anger.
Police said no work had been carried out to alter the ramp, but said safety precautions put in place.
The city says the ramp is a fire hazard and could collapse onto the women’s prayer section by the Western Wall, but Muslim leaders fear its demolition could destabilise the mosque compound.