By Tom Perry
AL-MUGHAYYIR, West Bank (Reuters) - Jewish settlers were accused of attacking a mosque in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Tuesday, setting alight carpets and daubing Hebrew graffiti on its walls.
Palestinian residents of al-Mughayyir village awoke for dawn prayers to find smoke billowing from the mosque, said Darwish Haj Mohammed, the mosque imam. Inside, a smoldering tire set ablaze in the attack had scorched the carpet.
"There are slogans which show without doubt that settlers entered the mosque and burned it," said Mohammed, adding that the arsonists had broken in through the windows.
Hebrew graffiti scrawled on the mosque wall read "PRICE TAG - ELEY AIN," signaling the attack had been mounted in retribution for the removal by the Israeli authorities of a structure at Eley Ain, a nearby settlement outpost, last week.
The attack drew strong condemnation from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
"This is a criminal act intended as a provocation. Israel has pioneered respect of freedom of worship and will work decisively against all who harm this principle," Netanyahu said in a statement.
Barak said he had instructed the military to "use all means to apprehend the perpetrators," adding that the "criminal act was intended to ... harm the chances of living in peace side by side."
An Israeli police spokesman said an investigation had been launched at the site in the village, northeast of Ramallah.
Militant settlers have adopted the slogan "price tag" for attacks against Palestinians and their property mounted in retaliation for any steps by the Israeli government against their settlements built on land Israel captured in a 1967 war.
The United Nations condemned the desecration of the mosque.
"The actions of Israeli extremists are highly provocative and threatening," Robert Serry, the U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, said in a statement.
"Consistent with its obligations under international law as the occupying power, the Israeli government must ensure accountability of those responsible and protect the human rights of Palestinians and their property, including religious sites."
While supporting Jewish settlers in the West Bank, the Netanyahu's government has continued a policy of removing some settlement "outposts," or settlements erected without permits.
A dispute over the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank led to a breakdown of peace talks last September which the Palestinian leadership has long hoped would yield independence from Israel in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Settlers have attacked at least five mosques in the West Bank in the last 18 months, said Mohammed Daraghmeh, head of the mosques department in the Palestinian Authority's religious endowments ministry.
He accused Israel of failing to mount serious investigations into past attacks. In previous cases some settlers had been detained for questioning but later released without charge.
"Israeli authorities cannot continue to turn a blind eye, which gives settlers impunity to continue with their attacks," a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis and Hamuda Hassan; editing by Alistair Lyon)