The US on Wednesday condemned the torching of a West Bank mosque earlier in the day, a “price tag” attack allegedly carried out by settler extremists.
“We believe that such hateful and provocative actions against a place of worship are never justified,” State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said in a press briefing. “We look to Israeli law enforcement officials to quickly investigate and bring to justice the perpetrators of this attack.”
“Price tag” refers to right-wing extremist attacks on Palestinians in response to army actions against perceived West Bank settlement interests.
The State Department called on local authorities “to work together with the community to reduce tension, to defend religious freedom, and to work against incitement.”
“We agree with the sentiment of the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land that any attacks on the sites of one religion are, in effect, an attack on all religions,” Harf said.
UN figures published Wednesday showed that the annual rate of Israeli extremist attacks against Palestinians has almost quadrupled over eight years, buttressing claims that Israeli security forces have largely failed to stem the so-called “price tag” campaign in which thugs cut down trees, deface mosques and churches and beat Palestinian farmers.
Israeli leaders have repeatedly denounced such attacks — Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon last week branded them “outright terrorism” — and the military says soldiers are under strict orders to stop them.
Still, critics say Israeli governments stacked with pro-settler politicians have often been reluctant to confront extremists head on, even those seen as a hard-line fringe.
“There is not enough pressure from the prime minister, the defense minister, the interior minister to prevent this,” said Gadi Zohar, a former senior army commander in the West Bank.
A dramatic incident near a Palestinian farming village last week highlighted the potential of such clashes to escalate and jeopardize fragile US-led peace efforts.
Last week’s events began when troops uprooted olive trees planted on private Palestinian land by settlers from the Esh Kodesh outpost.
Later that day, about 20 Israelis moved toward nearby villages, including Qusra. Palestinians said the settlers damaged olive trees, and were caught by villagers after a stone-throwing clash and held by them for more than two hours before being handed to the army. Many of the settlers were beaten.
Footage of the settlers surrounded by an angry crowd led the TV news in Israel that day, with commentators saying serious bloodshed was averted by Palestinians who shielded the settlers. The settlers, meanwhile, insisted that they were hiking and denied any connection to violence or vandalism against Palestinians.
Some Palestinians say “price tag” is part of an Israeli policy that seeks to cement control over the West Bank, noting that Israel has been providing practical support for outposts even though they were set up without formal government permission.
“Who gives them water, electricity, who gives them security, and paves their streets?” said Qusra resident Abdel Hakim Odeh, referring to the government’s policy toward the outposts. “These gangs are used by the government against the Palestinians.”
But Col. Eran Makov, deputy commander of an IDF division in the West Bank, said soldiers have clear orders to stop any violence between civilians in the territory. “The policy of the IDF… is to interrupt and stop every incident when a person attacks another person,” Makov said.
He said soldiers can’t be everywhere at once to block attacks and that it’s sometimes difficult to respond rapidly in rocky terrain. In last week’s incident, soldiers responded within 15 minutes, he said.
Makov acknowledged that young conscripts aren’t necessarily trained for policing jobs, but that those who fail to intervene face disciplinary action.
Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police have formed special units to deal with “price tag” attacks. A West Bank unit with 30 officers began working a year ago, focusing on surveillance, intelligence gathering and undercover operations, he said.
The army said Palestinian complaints about settler attacks during the annual olive harvest dropped by half, to 20, from 2012 to 2013.
Despite such efforts, the UN said there was a steady rise in the number of attacks carried out by settlers.
There have been 2,100 alleged attacks since 2006, the year the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) started counting. The annual totals are up from 115 in 2006 to 399 in 2013, the UN said.
In the past eight years, 10 Palestinians were killed by settlers, and 29 settlers were killed by Palestinians, according to OCHA figures. More than 1,700 Palestinians were injured by settlers or by troops in clashes, while 324 settlers and 37 soldiers were hurt by Palestinians in confrontations.
Many of the settlers killed by Palestinians were targeted in stabbing attacks. In 2011, Palestinians stabbed to death five members of the Fogel family, including three small children, in their home in the settlement of Itamar as they slept.