LUBBAN ASH SHARQIYA, West Bank – “There is immense anger as well as a feeling of vulnerability and fear when a place of sanctuary and holiness is subject to indiscriminate violence,” says Issa Hussein.
“Despite living under a brutal military occupation and being subjected to regular attacks by Israeli settlers for decades, normally places of worship were spared,” Hussein, a spokesman from this Palestinian village, near Nablus, in the northern West Bank, told IPS.
“People could forget about the economic hardship, the political oppression and their personal problems for a few hours a week as they retreated to pray in the mosque.”
All this changed dramatically for the agricultural village of 3,000 residents a few weeks ago.
Israeli settlers from one of the three surrounding illegal settlements, which have been built on land belonging to Lubban Ash Shariqiya and other Palestinian villages, carried out an arson attack on the local mosque.
The Israeli Civil Administration, which administers the West Bank, originally denied that Israeli settlers had been involved, and instead blamed an electrical short-circuit.
However, Israeli firefighters who later came to investigate the gutted mosque said arson was the likely cause and ruled out the possibility of an electrical fire.
“The part of the mosque where the fire broke out was undergoing renovations and the electricity had been turned off,” explained Hussein.
“Furthermore, some villagers heard cars drawing up at about 3 a.m. in the morning of the attack and saw settlers getting out of the vehicles and going into the mosque,” said Hussein as he took IPS on a tour of the charred and gutted mosque.
Curtains from windows had been torn down to help the fire burn. Korans, which are usually piled up at one end of the mosque, had been moved to the other end and placed in piles next to the bathroom.
On top of, and adjacent to, the pile of Korans were shoes which had all been arranged into a Star of David sign, Judaism’s chief emblem.
Shoes are regarded as dirty in Islamic culture. One of the worst insults in the Muslim world is to show the soles of one’s shoes to somebody or to walk over something with one’s shoes on.
The vandalism of deliberately attacking a holy place in a deeply religious society, combined with the use of provocative and offensive symbolism, was not lost on the villagers.
“We would never store the Korans near a toilet or put shoes anywhere near our holy books. Everybody is forced to take their shoes off at the door before they even enter the mosque,” Hussein told IPS.
This attack is just the latest in a string of attacks on Palestinians and their property, including mosques, as Israeli settlers up their “price-tag policy.”
The settlers have warned that for every illegal settlement outpost dismantled, restraining order issued, or settler arrested in the West Bank, they will carry out retaliatory attacks against Palestinians, their homes, places of business, cars, agricultural fields, livestock, and mosques.
Not a weekend goes by without Palestinians being assaulted, olive trees cut down or uprooted, fields set alight, and cars stoned or burned.
In December, a mosque in the nearby village of Yasuf was gutted and burned. In April, a Star of David and racist anti-Arab slogans were spray painted on a mosque in the village of Huwarra. Several cars were also set alight.
In turn settlers driving near Palestinian villages have also been subjected to stone-throwing and periodic attacks with Molotov cocktails by Palestinians, damaging vehicles and in some instances causing injuries.
However, Israeli Defense Forces investigators believe the attacks on mosques are part of a deliberate policy by settlers and have uncovered information about future settler plans to attack mosques.
A number of settlers were arrested by Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, the Shin Bet’s Jewish department, but these arrests preceded more attacks on Palestinians. As of now it is not certain whether any charges will be pressed against those arrested.
The UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry, condemned the settler attacks.
“I condemn these attacks. It is vital that the Israeli government impose the rule of law and that those responsible for such crimes are brought to justice,” said Serry.
The special coordinator’s statement also expressed concern over “a number of attacks upon mosques in recent months, as well as violence against Palestinian property and individuals by extremist settlers.”
“This is not the first time we have been subjected to settler attacks. They have burned our crops on a regular basis. They also machine-gunned to death an elderly man and woman in 1990 near our village after Meir Kahane was assassinated in New York,” Hussein told IPS.
Meir Kahane was the founder of the Jewish Defense League as well as the ultra right-wing and fascist Kach Party, which espouses the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel and the occupied territories.
It was outlawed by the Israeli Knesset or parliament for being racist, but it continues to attract supporters in Israel.
Members of the Palestinian Authority (PA) visited Lubban Ash Sharqiya the same day that IPS was there and promised that the mosque would be rebuilt as soon as possible.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas has personally ordered its reconstruction.
(Inter Press Service)