NABLUS // Fires ripped through a mosque and an olive grove in two West Bank villages today, and local Palestinians accused Jewish settlers of deliberately setting the blazes. The mosque fire took place early in the morning in the village of Luban a-Sharkiyeh, incinerating holy books and prayer carpets. Although there were no witnesses, Jibril al Bakri, the Palestinian governor of Nablus, said after a joint Palestinian-Israeli investigation that it was an act of arson.
The mosque has been undergoing renovations but the village mayor, Jamal Daraghmeh, said there was no fire in the area where the work was taking place. He said the charred remnants of the holy books, placed on the floor, indicated the fire was deliberate. He added that settlers had attacked village property in the past. The Israeli military had no comment on the cause of the fire. Police said conclusions would be drawn after experts examine evidence, which was transferred to the police forensics department.
Separately, villagers in the nearby Hawara said they saw settlers set fire to an olive grove close to the Jewish settlement of Bracha. The fire there destroyed about 50 trees before soldiers extinguished the flames. "About 20 settlers came from the settlement and they set a fire here and then they left," Rida Mustafa, a village resident who said he witnessed the attack. "Every couple of days, they come and cause trouble," Mr Mustafa added.
The military said it did not know how the fire broke out. Both Hawara and Luban a-Sharkiyeh - villages located near the town of Nablus - are ringed by settlements. Settlers have stepped up their attacks on Palestinian property in recent months following Israeli government measures to curb settlement construction. Israeli police arrested nine settlers in an arson attack in January on a different West Bank mosque. A prayer leader in another village said vandals defaced his mosque with Hebrew graffiti in April.
No one claimed responsibility for the attacks, and settler leaders said they were unaware of settler involvement. "I want to believe and very much hope it wasn't carried out by Israelis," said Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, the mainstream settler group. "If it was, it would be a disgrace." * AP