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Palestinians accuse Jewish settlers of mosque attack

HAWARA, West Bank (Reuters) - Jewish settlers vandalized a mosque in the West Bank on Wednesday, Palestinian officials said, the latest in a series of attacks blamed on settlers that have fueled tension in the occupied territory.

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The Israeli army said the Bilal Ibn Rabah mosque in the village of Hawara near Nablus had been vandalized by “anonymous suspects.” Two cars were also set ablaze in the village. The army condemned the attack and ordered an investigation.

“The Star of David symbol and the word ‘Mohammad’ in Hebrew were among the graffiti painted on the wall of the mosque,” the army said in a statement, adding that the graffiti was erased by the Israeli authorities.

Kamal Odeh, a Hawara resident and representative of the Palestinian Fatah party, said it was the second time settlers had attacked the village this week. They torched one car and opened fire on a shop in Hawara on Monday, he said.

“The situation is very tense,” said Odeh, 40. “There is real anger.”

The settlers, who live in hilltop enclaves dotted around the area, have grown ever bolder, Palestinians say.

There are around 500,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and areas near Jerusalem annexed by Israel. Settlers in the Nablus area tend to be religiously-motivated, claiming a biblical link to lands occupied by Israel since 1967.

Major world powers view the settlements as illegal and an obstacle to any Palestinian-Israeli peace deal.

Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian official who monitors settlement activities in the Nablus governorate, said the rate of settler attacks had increased in the first quarter of this year compared with 2009.

The Israeli authorities have launched investigations into at least two other attacks on Muslim sites in the Nablus area since December. They could not immediately say whether either probe had resulted in charges being brought against suspects.

Palestinians believe Jewish settlers were behind both the December arson attack on a mosque in the village of Yasuf and acts of vandalism in a cemetery in the village of Awarta in January.

The Israeli police arrested one teenager from a Jewish settlement in connection with the Yasuf mosque attack. He was questioned and released without charge.

Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Ori Lewis; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Dominic Evans