Arsonists torch mosque in West Bank village

Ramallah, West Bank - Arsonists torched a mosque in a West Bank village Monday, scrawling "revenge" on a wall in Hebrew and charring copies of the Muslim holy book in an attack that threatened to stoke new tensions over deadlocked Mideast peacemaking.

Palestinians say they suspect hard-line Jewish settlers of setting the fire in the village of Beit Fajjar, near Hebron. The attack is likely to hamper U.S. efforts to sustain month-old between Israelis and Palestinians, now deadlocked over settlements.

Dozens of grim-faced residents milled around as blue-clad Israeli police and khaki-uniformed soldiers tried to maintain order.

"Only somebody who doesn't fear God would do this," said resident Ayman Taqatqa. "We won't allow people to offend our religion. We'll defend it with our lives."

Israel last week refused to extend the moratorium on new construction in West Bank settlements, putting peace talks into doubt because Palestinians have threatened to quit if building resumes. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under heavy international pressure to put restrictions back into place.

White House envoy George Mitchell has been shuttling across the region over the past week in hopes of brokering a compromise, but so far has not been able to find a solution.

There was no claim of responsibility for the blaze, but suspicions fell on extremist Jewish settlers. A tiny minority of hard-liners often damage Palestinian property in what they call the "price tag" policy - meant to frighten Palestinians or to express outrage over the government's slowdown on settlement construction.

"Revenge" was scribbled on an inside wall of the sooty, stone-clad mosque. A neat row of Muslim holy books, the Quran, were partially charred, and patches of the carpet were blackened. But the blaze otherwise appeared to be contained and caused limited damage.

Taqatqa said he saw a car pull up to the mosque before dawn. Two men then rushed inside, while another two stood guard outside and two men stayed in the car, he said. He then said he saw a small blaze and began yelling for his neighbors to come. He said they waited for the men to leave before putting out the blaze, fearing they were armed Jewish settlers.

Residents later prayed in the sooty mosque and an elderly man chanted verses from one of the charred Qurans.

The village is ringed by Jewish settlements, and both Palestinian residents and a settler leader acknowledged that relations are tense. But village councilman Kamel Hamish said there had not been any physical altercations between Jews and Palestinians in the past.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said they were looking into the incident. Brig. Gen. Yoel Mordechai said the military had been in touch with Palestinian officials and that Israel was "working in order to find those responsible, and we view this as a grave and serious incident."

It was the third West Bank mosque burning in the past year, following incidents last December and March.

Nobody has been charged with any of the arson attacks, said Dana Zimmerman of Yesh Din, an Israeli rights group which monitors attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank. The group noted that only 10 percent of attacks on Palestinians ever lead to prosecution.

The settlements, where 300,000 Jews live among 2.5 million Palestinians, are one of the thorniest issues in Israeli-Palestinian relations and the main obstacle at the moment to continuing a round of talks restarted a month ago in Washington.

Palestinian negotiators say they cannot build a state that includes the West Bank while Israel continues to expand Jewish settlements on the land they claim.

At the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting Monday, Netanyahu said Israel was "in intense diplomatic negotiations with the American administration to find a solution to allow the talks to continue."

Israeli media have published unconfirmed reports that American mediators offered Netanyahu a package of far-reaching incentives in return for agreeing to a 60-day extension of the settlement moratorium, including new weaponry.

According to the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, the U.S. also promised to support an Israeli demand to leave troops along the eastern border of a future Palestinian state after a peace agreement, a demand the Palestinians have said they will not accept.

U.S. officials have declined to comment on specifics of their proposals for moving the talks forward.