- Associated Press - Monday, October 4, 2010

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Arsonists torched a mosque in a Palestinian village in the West Bank on Monday, scrawling “revenge” on a wall in Hebrew and charring copies of the Muslim holy book in a blaze that threatened to stoke new tensions over deadlocked Mideast peacemaking.

Palestinians suspect hard-line Jewish settlers set the fire in the village of Beit Fajjar. The lead Palestinian negotiator said the fire reflected the significance Jewish West Bank settlements have in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peacemaking has stalled just a month after a new round of talks was launched in Washington.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under heavy international pressure to extend recently expired restrictions on settlement construction.

The Palestinians have said they cannot continue peace talks if settlement building resumes. But Mr. Netanyahu, facing heavy pressure within his pro-settlement governing coalition, has refused to extend the restrictions.

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.

Mr. Netanyahu has sounded out political allies about the possibility of renewing the restrictions in exchange for U.S. sweeteners.

At the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting Monday, Mr. Netanyahu said Israel was “in intense diplomatic negotiations with the American administration to find a solution to allow the talks to continue” but didn’t tip his hand about possible U.S. benefits.

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

According to the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, the United States 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.

There was no claim of responsibility for Monday’s mosque burning, but suspicions fell on extremist Jewish settlers. A tiny minority of hard-line Jews often damage Palestinian property in what they call the “price tag” policy — meant to frighten Palestinians or to express outrage over the Israeli government’s slowdown on settlement construction.

The fire left a layer of soot on the beautiful, stone-built mosque. “A mosque must be burned” was scrawled in Hebrew on an inside wall, and “Revenge” was written on another wall.

Inside the mosque, a neat row of Muslim holy books, the Quran, were charred, and the carpet was blackened.

The village is ringed by Jewish settlements, and both Palestinian residents and a settler leader acknowledged that relations are tense.

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,” resident Ayman Taqatqa said. “We won’t allow people to offend our religion. We’ll defend it with our lives.”

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