Israeli PM vows crackdown on Jewish extremists
JERUSALEM—Israel's prime minister on Wednesday ordered a crackdown on Jewish extremists believed to be responsible for a wave of violence and vandalism against Israeli soldiers and Muslim mosques.
The move followed the arrest of suspected extremists and an attack on a disused mosque.
Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that he had accepted recommendations made by his Cabinet ministers to stop the disturbances.
The measures grant soldiers the ability to make arrests, ban extremists from contentious areas and enable rioters to be tried in military courts. The prime minister stopped short of accepting a recommendation from the ministers to define the extremists as "terrorists."
Earlier Wednesday, Israeli police arrested six suspected Jewish extremists in a raid on a Jerusalem apartment.
The crackdown came hours after arsonists torched a Jerusalem mosque in an overnight attack. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the six suspects, who appeared to be in their late teens or early 20s, were detained in connection to "recent events" but were not believed to be involved in the latest mosque attack.
The Israeli government has vowed to root out and punish assailants who in recent months have vandalized military bases, mosques, cemeteries, farmlands and cars in the West Bank and Israel proper.
The attacks are believed to be the work of Jewish extremists who are upset over government policies that they feel are unfairly biased in favor of Palestinians.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to "take care of these attackers with a firm hand" and Defense Minister Ehud Barak decried the "homegrown terror."
The increasing frequency of the attacks, the sparse number of arrests and absence of indictments have also generated allegations that the Israeli government isn't acting forcefully enough against extremists after two years of violence.
During Wednesday's arrest, police burst into an apartment in a religious neighborhood of Jerusalem. The apartment is next to the Merkaz Harav seminary, a study center that is known as a stronghold of Jewish nationalists affiliated with the West Bank settlement movement.
It was not known whether the suspects were students there, but as they were led away, students and other residents shouted and taunted the police, slashing a tire on one police car and smashing the windshield on another.
The mosque targeted Wednesday has not been used as a prayer site for some time, but any attack on a Muslim place of worship, particularly in the contested holy city of Jerusalem, is seen as an exceptional provocation.
The words "price tag" were spray-painted at the mosque -- a reference to Jewish extremists' practice of exacting retribution for government action against settlements. Anti-Muslim graffiti such as "Mohammed is dead" and "A good Arab is a dead Arab" was also scrawled at the scene.
Other acts of vandalism were reported in two Palestinian cities in the West Bank, where the military said cars were set afire and hate graffiti was scrawled.
Israeli politicians have issued harsh statements against Jewish radicalism, particularly after protesters broke into an Israeli military base in the West Bank on Tuesday, damaging vehicles, setting fires and slightly injuring a senior commander.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland condemned the vandalism. "There is never any justification for an attack on a place of worship," she told reporters. "We have called for calm on the part of all parties."
Lawmaker Shaul Mofaz told Army Radio on Wednesday that the government was not doing enough to stop what he called "groups of Jewish guerrillas."
"These hooligans are terrorists for all intents and purposes," said Mofaz, a former defense minister and military chief, directing his anger at the attack on the military base.
"The Israeli government has to exact a price tag, and it has to be painful, expensive and unequivocal."
In all, police have detained at least 21 people this week in connection with the recent violence. In the past, suspects have rarely been held for long, and few have been prosecuted for serious crimes.
Settler leader Dani Dayan condemned the attacks but bristled at politicians' descriptions.
"It's a grave phenomenon that has to be battled, but I don't know if it's terror," he told Army Radio.
Also Wednesday, the Israeli prison service posted the list of Palestinian prisoners set to be freed as the second stage of a swap between Israel and Gaza Hamas militants in October.
In the deal, the most lopsided in Israel's history, one Israeli soldier was freed in exchange for freedom for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Israel is set to release 550 prisoners Sunday in the second phase of the deal.
Israel publishes the list of prisoners before swaps to allow court challenges.
In October, Israel freed 477 Palestinian prisoners, some convicted of involvement in suicide bombings and other deadly attacks, in exchange for Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who was captured by Palestinian militants in 2006.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.