JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday approved steps to crack down on violent ultra-nationalist Jewish settlers after a rampage at a West Bank military base and torching of a mosque’s facade stirred public outrage.
Radical settlers are bent on foiling government efforts to shut down unauthorized outposts they have set up in occupied West Bank territory where Palestinians seek a state, although Israel has continued to expand larger official settlements.
Among the measures approved by Netanyahu were administrative detention of suspects, trials of some suspects in military rather than civil courts, and ejection from the West Bank of settlers suspected of inciting violence.
Settlers angered over rumors that the army was about to oust them from hilltop enclaves threw rocks at a commander and his deputy at a West Bank military base on Monday, injuring one of them, and smashed windows and slashed vehicle tires.
On Wednesday, radical Jews burnt the facade of a Jerusalem mosque not recently in use and scrawled “Death to the Arabs” on its walls, an assault blamed on a group that has vandalized other Muslim houses of worship over the past two years.
The incidents angered many in Israel, whose military is seen as sacrosanct, and where people worry that repeated settler assaults on Muslim holy sites might rekindle serious Israeli-Palestinian violence after months of relative calm that has prevailed despite a long impasse in peace talks.
In an unusually swift response after the Jerusalem mosque incident, Israeli police said they had arrested five Israeli men suspected of involvement in “nationalistically motivated crime.”
Netanyahu followed with a statement saying that after consulting with security chiefs he would take the rare step of “immediately” ordering so-called administrative arrests of Israelis involved in such violence, jailing them without trial.
The measure has been used in the past against Israeli ultra-nationalists but is more commonly employed against Palestinians suspected of involvement with militant groups.
Human rights groups have long accused Israel of failing to arrest or try most settlers accused of involvement in violence against Palestinians. The Jewish state has arrested settler suspects in the past but rarely put any on trial.
Israeli soldiers will also be empowered to carry out arrests, a statement sent to reporters from Netanyahu’s office said. Until now Israeli police had to be called to a crime scene to conduct arrests, giving perpetrators time to flee.
Netanyahu said further that he would increase funding for investigations of violence in occupied territory. But he rejected calls to treat Israelis suspected of violence there as “terrorist targets,” as Palestinian militants are handled.
“Anyone who raises a hand against Israeli soldiers or police will be severely punished,” said Netanyahu.
He said such suspects would be dealt with in the same way as protesters in Bil’in, a Palestinian village where clashes, sometimes deadly, over an Israeli barrier built across West Bank land used to occur regularly.
Many Israelis hold their military in high regard since most Israeli men and many women are conscripted for compulsory duty at the age of 18 and the country has fought a dozen wars and uprisings in its 63-year history.
Consequently, the furor in Israel over Monday’s vandalism at the West Bank base in the Nablus area cut across party lines, with some mainstream settler groups and far-right factions joining in the condemnations.
But Netanyahu’s steps were cautious enough to avoid triggering a crisis in his broadly pro-settler ruling coalition that could topple his nearly three-year-old government.
“It is important that I stress that this is only a small group that does not represent the bulk of residents in Judea and Samaria who are loyal to Israel,” Netanyahu added in his statement, using the Jewish biblical names for the West Bank.
Editing by Mark Heinrich