JERUSALEM Israel announced a crackdown on Monday against Jewish ultranationalists who vandalize Palestinian property, saying they were tantamount to terrorists and their attacks could fan sectarian violence.
The move followed the arrest of a 22-year Israeli from an Orthodox Jewish town near Tel Aviv for the vandalism of a Christian monastery in the occupied West Bank last year. The attack was carried out in solidarity with hardline Jewish settlers.
Graffiti left on the 19th-century Latrun Monastery referred to Migron, an unauthorized settler outpost evacuated by the Israeli government. The words "Jesus is a monkey" were also daubed on the wall in Hebrew, and the monastery's doors torched.
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said those suspected in so-called "Price Tag" incidents would now be subject to measures such as longer detentions and denial of access to lawyers while under interrogation - measures akin to those used by Israel's security services in tackling Palestinian militants.
"Price Tag perpetrators' conduct is identical to the conduct of modern terrorist groups, including ideological inspiration and covert action," the Defense Ministry said in a statement.
"Its main objective is to prevent the legitimate Israeli government from carrying out moves, whether of state or regarding law enforcement, and to sow fear among the nation's leaders of making decisions of one kind or another."
The ultranationalists have desecrated mosques, torched cars and chopped down trees belonging to Palestinians, saying they sought to make the government "pay" for curbing unauthorized West Bank settlement
They have occasionally hit Israeli army facilities, churches or Arab sites inside the Jewish state. But Israeli authorities are most troubled by the possibility that Palestinian victims could lash out in reprisal, upending the West Bank's relative calm at a time of peacemaking stalemate.
"It is our duty to toughen up the penalties against these miscreants, because this activity has catastrophic potential," the statement quoted Yaalon as saying. "We must fight an all-out war against them, with minimum tolerance and maximum means."
Palestinians, who exercise limited autonomy in the West Bank under 1993 interim peace deals, have long complained settlers enjoy impunity under Israeli military control of the territory.
Israel's Shin Bet security service says dozens of suspects have been arrested. But convictions have been rare, a fact Israeli officials blame on suspects' secrecy and withstanding of pressure to confess under interrogation.
Settler leaders have disavowed the Price Tag perpetrators, many of whom are self-styled "Hilltop Youths," zealots in their teens or 20s who spurn the authority of the secular state.
In one incident last August, six Palestinians were hurt when their taxi was firebombed. Several Israeli minors from a settlement were arrested but released for lack of evidence.
(Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Angus MacSwan)