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Jewish settlers blamed for West Bank mosque fire

By Mohammed Assadi

LIBBAN AL-SHARQIA, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinians accused Jewish settlers of setting fire to a mosque in the occupied West Bank Tuesday, an incident that raised tensions as a U.S. envoy began a mission to get peace talks going.

Israeli security officers were at the scene investigating the fire but have not determined its cause. Evidence was taken for forensic examination, an Israeli police spokesman said.

The mosque in the village of Libban al-Sharqia, near the Palestinian city of Nablus, was gutted overnight by the blaze that also burned holy books.

There were no witnesses to what Palestinian locals and officials assumed was another attack by Jewish settlers in the Nablus area. Settlers have also been suspected of vandalizing two other mosques and a cemetery in the last six months.

"We condemn this criminal act perpetrated by settlers," Nabil Abu Rdainah, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told Reuters. "This is a threat to all the efforts aimed at reviving the peace process."

U.S. special envoy George Mitchell arrived in Israel on Monday to try to get indirect peace talks under way. The Arab League approved the U.S.-mediated talks Saturday and they are expected to begin soon.

The Hamas movement, which rules the Gaza Strip and is opposed to peace talks with Israel, said the mosque attack was "the first fruit of the pointless negotiations."

BIBLICAL CLAIM

Jewish settlers in the Nablus area, some of the 500,000 who have settled in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, are mainly driven by ideology.

They claim a biblical link to West Bank land occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war -- territory upon which the Palestinians aim to establish their state. Major world powers view the settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace.

Mahmoud al-Habbash, the Palestinian minister of religious endowments, dismissed an Israeli suggestion that the blaze could have been started by an electrical fault.

"I say to the Israelis that the settlers are a danger to yourselves and us," he told Reuters while assessing the damage.

An Israeli government minister assumed it was arson and said those responsible would be caught.

"I have no shadow of doubt their aim was to ignite fire in the region and this is lamentable," Industry and Trade Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Israel's army radio.

Attacks on Palestinian villages and farmland tend to rise whenever the Israeli government takes action or proposes taking steps deemed by settlers as a threat to their West Bank enclaves. Palestinian officials say the rate of attacks increased in the first quarter of this year compared with 2009.

Jibreen al-Bakri, the governor of Nablus, said Israeli officials warned him Monday of an increased threat of settler violence because of plans by Israeli authorities to demolish some homes in a West Bank settlement built without Israeli government authorization.

Israeli authorities have launched investigations into attacks on at least three other Muslim sites in the Nablus area since December. Nobody has been charged.

(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis in Jerusalem, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Writing by Tom Perry)

(For blogs and links on Israeli politics and other Israeli and Palestinian news, go to http://blogs.reuters.com/axismundi)

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