RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - An escalation in Jewish settler attacks on Palestinian villages in the Israeli-occupied West Bank risks triggering retaliation, a Palestinian official said on Thursday, pointing to a growing risk to stability in the region.
Incidents over the past two weeks have included acts of vandalism against three West Bank mosques, increasing tension just a week before the Palestinians seek recognition of statehood at the United Nations.
In some villages, Palestinians are organizing neighborhood watch groups in an effort at deterrence. The governor of Nablus, an area where villages are often targeted, ordered the formation of the unarmed volunteer groups last week.
"We are very much concerned by the significant increase in settler violence and aggression against Palestinians," Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib said.
"In the last 10 days, there have been a few incidents almost every day. The continuity of violence is playing the role of inciting Palestinians for a violent response," he said. "That might bring us back to the vicious circle of violence that we all wanted to avoid."
Three cars were torched in the early hours of Thursday morning in the village of Beit Furik, just outside Nablus -- an area home to some of the most ideological members of the settler movement.
Beit Furik Mayor Atef Hanani said it was the first time settlers had staged such an attack in the village. "People are on guard," he added. "We need to take a stand to defend ourselves and our property."
One apparent trigger for the latest wave was the Israeli authorities' removal of buildings at an unauthorized settler outpost on September 5.
The name of the settlement, Migron, was daubed on the walls of a mosque which was set ablaze in the village of Qusra the same day. In the past, such attacks have been seen as a form of reprisal by the settlers.
RISK OF "MAJOR ESCALATION"
The U.N. agency OCHA, which documents such incidents, has recorded a rise in settler violence this year compared to last.
But the frequency appears to have gone up further still this month. In the Nablus area, six cars have been torched in a week. In a normal month, the average is one, said Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian official who monitors settler violence.
The Israeli authorities' action against Migron also appeared to explain an act of vandalism on September 7 at a West Bank army base. Pro-settler graffiti was daubed on walls there.
Asked about the wave of attacks, an Israeli police spokesman said there was a decision to set up "a special investigations task force to deal with the large number of incidents that have taken place over a short space of time."
Palestinians fear more trouble in the days leading up to September 23, when their president plans to ask the United Nations to admit Palestine as a full member state.
The step amounts to an attempt to gain U.N. recognition of a state on land occupied by Israel in a 1967 war and to which many settlers stake a biblical claim.
"The atmosphere is very, very tense," said Hani Abu Murad, the mayor of Qusra, where the mosque was set ablaze on September 5. Elsewhere, graffiti was daubed on the walls of at least two other mosques, one of them in Birzeit, just outside Ramallah.
Between 15 and 20 volunteers have been taking part in the neighborhood watch group set up in the village, Abu Murad said. Their presence appeared to have scared off settlers who had approached again a few days ago, he said.
The volunteers' instructions are to phone the governor of Nablus in case of trouble, he said. The governor in turn contacts the Israeli army.
But the villagers have little faith in the Israeli security forces, criticized for not doing enough to rein in settlers.
"There is a long term systemic failure to protect Palestinians and their property from the violence of Israeli citizens in the occupied territories," said Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.
"The actual impact of one of these attacks is much larger than just the localized problem. It could lead to a major escalation."