JERUSALEM (Reuters) - People thought to be Jewish settlers set fire to a mosque, damaging its interior, in the West Bank on Thursday after Israeli forces tore down structures in a settler-outpost built without government approval.

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.

In the village of Burqa, near Ramallah, the interior of the local mosque was doused with petrol and set alight. Its carpet, walls, chairs and electrical wiring were damaged.

"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 mosque was defaced with Hebrew graffiti that said "war" and "Mitzpe Yitzhar," the name of the outpost where the demolitions had taken place hours earlier.

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.

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.

After consulting with security chiefs, Netanyahu said on Wednesday he would take the rare step of ordering so-called administrative arrests -- detention without trial -- of Israelis suspected of vigilante attacks.

The measure, widely seen as having been sparked mainly by the attack on the army base, has been more commonly used against Palestinians suspected of involvement with militant groups.

Israel has long been accused of failing to arrest or investigate settlers for acts of violence against Palestinians.

Police said they had entered Burqa to investigate the arson attack on the mosque.

(Reporting By Jihan Abdalla; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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