NABLUS: Fires ripped through a mosque and an olive grove in two West Bank villages on Tuesday, and local Palestinians accused Jewish settlers of deliberately setting the blazes.
The mosque fire took place early in the morning in the village of Luban A-Sharkiyeh, incinerating holy books and prayer carpets. Although there were no witnesses, Jibril Al-Bakri, the Palestinian governor of Nablus, said after a joint Palestinian-Israeli investigation that it was an act of arson.
The mosque, located in Lubban A-Sharqiya some 10 kilometers south of Nablus, was largely destroyed in the attack, said village mayor, Jamal Daraghma.
The mosque has been undergoing renovations but village Mayor Jamal Daraghmeh said there was no fire in the area where the work was taking place. He said the charred remnants of the holy books, placed on the floor, indicated the fire was deliberate. He added that settlers had attacked village property in the past.
The Israeli military said it was working with Israeli police and Palestinian authorities to determine the cause of the blaze. It said it had assured the Palestinians it was taking the matter seriously.
Israeli police said evidence had been transferred to its forensics department.
Separately, villagers in the nearby village of Hawara said they saw settlers set fire to an olive grove close to the Jewish settlement of Bracha. The fire there destroyed about 50 trees before soldiers extinguished the flames.
"About 20 settlers came from the settlement and they set a fire here and then they left," Rida Mustafa, a village resident who said he witnessed the attack, told The Associated Press.
"Every couple of days, they come and cause trouble," Mustafa added.
The military said it did not know how the fire broke out.
Both Hawara and Luban A-Sharkiyeh — villages located near the town of Nablus — are ringed by settlements.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Tuesday blamed hard-line Jewish settlers for the torching of a West Bank mosque, saying it threatened US-brokered efforts to revive the peace process.
"President Abbas condemns the burning of the mosque in Lubban ash-Sharqiya by extremist settlers and said the responsibility for this criminal attack lies with the Israeli government because the Israeli army protects the settlers," his office said in a statement.
"This criminal attack threatens efforts to revive the peace process."
No one claimed responsibility for the attacks, and settler leaders said they were unaware of settler involvement.
"I want to believe and very much hope it wasn’t carried out by Israelis," said Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, the mainstream settler group. "If it was, it would be a disgrace."
Settlers have stepped up their attacks on Palestinian property in recent months following Israeli government measures to curb settlement construction. On April 14, a mosque in Huwara near Nablus was desecrated by settlers who scrawled Hebrew graffiti and a Star of David over the walls, Palestinian security sources said.
Two cars were also torched during the incident, prompting the Israeli army to open an investigation.
In December, settlers vandalized another mosque in the northern West Bank village of Yasuf, torching Muslim holy books and spraying hate messages in Hebrew. The incident triggered clashes between villagers and Israeli troops.