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Jewish settlers eyed after another mosque burns

Atef Safadi / EPA

Palestinian women examine damage at a mosque in the West Bank village of Burqa on Thursday.

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Vandals set fire to another mosque in the West Bank on Thursday and defaced it with Hebrew graffiti after Israeli forces tore down structures in a settler-outpost built without government approval.

Suspicion fell on Jewish extremists widely assumed to be behind stepped-up violence against Palestinians and the Israeli military.

The governor of Ramallah, Laila Ghanam, said arsonists doused the mosque in the village of Burqa with gasoline, then set it afire.

"Thankfully, the torching occurred shortly before dawn prayers, and the villagers who arrived at the mosque put out the fire," said Mahmoud al-Habash, the Palestinian minister of religious affairs.

The Hebrew words for "war" and "Mitzpe Yitzhar" were painted in red on a wall, and the Israeli military said carpets and chairs were burned.

Mitzpe Yitzhar is an unauthorized Jewish settlement outpost in the West Bank where Israeli security forces demolished two structures early Thursday.

The vandalism appeared to be the latest act of defiance by militant settlers whom Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to rein in after similar attacks on mosques and vandalism at an Israeli military base.

On Wednesday, radical Jews burnt the exterior of an unused Jerusalem mosque and scrawled "Death to the Arabs" on its walls.

A day earlier, young Jewish settlers rampaged through a military base in the occupied West Bank. The attack against the armed forces, an institution revered by many Israelis, sent shock waves through Israel.

In a statement on Thursday, Israeli President Shimon Peres condemned the settler attacks and said they were "pouring oil on the flames" of hostility towards Israel in a tense Middle East already in political turmoil.

The Palestinian Authority described the mosque burnings as "hate crimes" and in a statement called on the international community to hold the Israeli government responsible for settler violence.

In recent years, settlers have attacked Palestinian and Israeli military targets in retaliation for Israeli government operations they see as overly sympathetic to Palestinians.

Night-time sabotage
The increasing frequency of the attacks, the sparse number of arrests and paucity of indictments have generated allegations that the Israeli government isn't acting forcefully enough against extremists after two years of violence.

On Wednesday, following an assault on an Israeli military base, Netanyahu approved measures to clamp down on extremists, including giving soldiers the authority to make arrests and to ban extremists from contentious areas.

Attempts to demolish unauthorized outposts have been resisted by radicals who scuffle with troops or carry out night-time sabotage to inflict what they call the "price tag" for "selling out" the settlements.

Most countries regard as illegal all of the settlements that Israel has built in territory it captured in a 1967 war and which Palestinians seek for a future state. Israel cites historical and biblical links to the land it refers to as Judea and Samaria.

Although Israel continues to expand larger official settlements, it has been evacuating smaller, unauthorized outposts, in line with court orders to move against them.

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The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.