Israel's chief rabbi made a rare visit to a Palestinian village on Monday to condemn the torching of a mosque allegedly by Jewish extremists, saying the attack brought back memories of the Holocaust.
The visit by an Israeli dignitary to a Palestinian village, along with the reference to the emotionally charged issue of the Holocaust, reflected the depth of concern caused by last week's mosque attack. Israeli leaders have been scrambling to reduce tensions.
There have been no arrests from last Friday's blaze. But authorities believe Jewish extremists carried out the attack in retaliation for a government-ordered slowdown in settlement construction. The attackers burned prayer carpets and a book stand with Muslim holy texts, leaving Hebrew graffiti on the floor.
During his trip to Yasuf, Rabbi Yona Metzger said that religious sites should be left outside any political dispute. He said the arson was especially troubling to Jews because their holy places were targeted in attacks by the Nazis.
"There were hundreds of synagogues. They took all of the holy books out onto the street and burned them," Metzger said. "We are still living this trauma. And in the state of Israel we will not allow a Jew to do something like this to Muslims."
The Holocaust is an extremely sensitive subject in Israel, home to some 250,000 elderly survivors. Israeli leaders rarely compare the atrocities of the Nazis, who murdered 6 million Jews, to present-day events or the suffering of the Palestinians.
About 200 Palestinians stood in the center of this farming village on Monday to watch the arrival of the Metzger's convoy. The sight of Israelis other than soldiers is rare in such villages, so many appeared to be there as much out of curiosity as to hear what the rabbi had to say.
Young boys scaled the walls and hung on the fence around the mosque's porch, saying "That's him! That's him!" and pointing at the bearded rabbi, who wore a black hat and jacket with a lavender tie.
Others greeted the rabbi with signs reading, "no to settlements, no to occupation."
Metzger, one of Israel's two chief rabbis, was escorted by Palestinian police and spoke briefly to reporters before entering the mosque. Metzger is the chief rabbi for Israeli Jews of European descent. A second chief rabbi oversees religious affairs for Jews of Middle Eastern origin.
Mahmoud Abu Salah, 48, the former head of the village council, greeted the rabbi. He said he was pleased with the visit but doubted it would do much to stop what he said was years of harassment from the Israeli settlers.
"The government will say the top rabbi came and condemned it, but it still lets the settlers get away with everything," he said.
Some angry villagers rejected Metzger's gesture.
"Why did he come? Does the one who set a fire come to put it out?" asked Ahmed Juda, 20. "In any case, he's an enemy. He's from Israel, so he's an enemy."
Later, in an interview to Israel's Army Radio, Metzger said he wasn't sure who set the mosque ablaze and warned against assigning blame until the culprits were caught. He said police were not allowed to investigate the scene of the fire, which raised concern over who was behind the attack.
"I ask myself if a man has a fire start in his home, won't he call the police to come and investigate?" he asked. "Who knows? I am not sure that it was done by the elements who are now being called extremists."
The natural suspects are Jewish settlers who are furious over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's 10-month ban on building new homes in West Bank settlements. Settler activists have blocked building inspectors from entering their communities, and some extremists have vowed to take out their anger on Palestinian targets, a policy known as the "price tag."
While Metzger's visit aimed as easing tensions with Palestinians, the Israeli government's testy ties to Jewish settlers continued to fray following the construction cut.
Some rabbis have called on soldiers to disobey orders to enforce the restrictions and the calls have sparked concern about widespread insubordination in the military's ranks.