JERUSALEM (Reuters) - People thought to be Jewish settlers set fire to a Palestinian mosque, damaging its interior, in the West Bank on Thursday after Israeli forces tore down structures in a settler outpost built without government approval.
The vandalism appeared to be the latest act of defiance by militant settlers whom Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to rein in after similar attacks on mosques and vandalism at an Israeli military base.
Although Israel continues to expand larger official settlements in occupied territory that Palestinians seek for a state, it has been evacuating smaller, unauthorized outposts, in line with court orders to move against them.
Most countries regard as illegal all settlements Israel has constructed on land captured in a 1967 war. Israel cites historical and biblical links to the West Bank, which it refers to as Judea and Samaria.
In the village of Burqa, near Ramallah, the interior of the local mosque was doused with petrol and set alight. Its carpet, walls, chairs and electrical wiring were damaged.
“Thankfully, the torching occurred shortly before dawn prayers, and the villagers who arrived at the mosque put out the fire,” said Mahmoud al-Habash, the Palestinian minister of religious affairs.
The mosque was defaced with Hebrew graffiti that said “war” and “Mitzpe Yitzhar,” the name of the outpost where the demolitions had taken place hours earlier.
On Wednesday, radical Jews burnt the exterior of an unused Jerusalem mosque and scrawled “Death to the Arabs” on its walls.
A day earlier, young Jewish settlers rampaged through an army base in the occupied West Bank. The attack sent shock waves through Israel, where many revere the conscript military.
Israeli leaders have condemned the settler attacks, saying they attracted hostility in an already volatile Middle East.
“We will not let them ignite a war of bloodshed, a religious war, with our neighbors,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a Tel Aviv convention of his right-wing Likud party.
“We won’t let them harm either Jews or Arabs,” he said.
The Palestinian Authority described the mosque burnings as “hate crimes” and in a statement called on foreign powers to hold the Israeli government responsible for settler violence.
Attempts to demolish unauthorized outposts have been resisted by radicals who scuffle with troops or carry out night-time sabotage to inflict what they call the “price tag” for “selling out” the settlements.
After consulting with security chiefs, Netanyahu said on Wednesday he would take the rare step of ordering so-called administrative arrests -- detention without trial -- of Israelis suspected of vigilante attacks.
The measure, widely seen as having been sparked mainly by the attack on the army base, has been more commonly used against Palestinians suspected of involvement with militant groups.
Israel has long been accused of failing to arrest or investigate settlers for acts of violence against Palestinians.
Israeli police said they had entered Burqa to investigate the arson attack on the mosque.
Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich