Israel denounces settlers' attack on army base

JERUSALEM Tue Dec 13, 2011 1:01pm EST

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An Israeli minister denounced a group of hardline Jewish settlers as "terrorists" on Tuesday after they vandalized an Israeli army base in the occupied West Bank.

Dozens of settlers threw stones at a commander and his deputy, who was lightly injured, an army spokesman said. They also smashed the windows of military vehicles with stones and paint bottles and punctured their tires.

Spokesman Yoav Mordechai said the attack happened after rumors spread of an imminent eviction of settlement outposts. Settlers also staged a protest in a military zone close to the border with Jordan.

The incidents are a sign of escalating tensions between the army and hardline nationalist settlers, who believe they have a biblical birthright to live wherever they want in the West Bank - land where the Palestinians want to create a state.

"This is a danger to our democracy, a danger to our country," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in parliament. "We will fight this phenomenon and eradicate it."

He ordered ministers and senior security officials to draw up an emergency plan to battle such attacks.

Civil Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said: "These are criminals, Jewish terrorists who are harming the soldiers who defend them and the security of Israel,"

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the "violent actions by a group of extremist criminals bear characteristics of terrorism and are unacceptable".

ESCALATING TENSIONS

Similar condemnations were also voiced from within the settler community. Rabbi Haim Drukman, a prominent West Bank rabbi and settler leader, told Israel Radio:

"It is hard to believe Jews would do this, it is like the acts of terrorists. How could such wild behavior be directed at the army? Is the army our enemy now? What have we come to?"

Some 300,000 Israelis live in the West Bank, which the government calls by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria.

The territory was captured in a 1967 war and is home to 2.5 million Palestinians. The World Court views settlements Israel has built in the areas as illegal. Israel disputes this, but has not authorized all the outposts that dot the land.

Settlers vandalized a West Bank army base for the first time in September, after structures in a settlement outpost were demolished. Militant settlers have also been blamed for setting at least five mosques on fire this year.

These have become known as "price tag" attacks, because they are meant to exact a price for actions taken against settlements. Many of the assailants have not been caught by authorities.

In the other incident, hardline settlers crossed into a military zone close to the border with Jordan during the night to demonstrate against Jordan's role as custodian of a Jerusalem holy site where Israel shut a footbridge on Monday.

The bridge that was shut leads up from Judaism's Western Wall to the sacred compound where the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine stand. The wooden ramp was deemed unsafe by Jerusalem's city engineer.

Settler Hananel Dorfman, told Army Radio: "It was a message to Jordan: we are not suckers, stop intervening in our internal affairs ... or we will intervene in yours." Security forces removed the group from of the area.

Mordechai said he thought the incursion next to the Jordan border and the subsequent attack on the army base near the Palestinian city of Nablus were connected. "There is a small group of extremists who are trying to drag the army into politics," he said.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Alison Williams)

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