JERUSALEM (AP) — The torching of a West Bank home that burned a Palestinian toddler to death marks one of the most serious cases of suspected Jewish violence against Arabs. Though the attacks rarely kill and are smaller in scope than past Palestinian attacks, Jewish extremists have for years been attacking Palestinian property, as well as mosques, churches and even Israeli schools and military bases, often to counter what they perceive to be the Israeli government's soft stance toward Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced Friday's attack as an "act of terrorism" and pledged to catch the killers. But Palestinians have long alleged that Israel has allowed militant Jewish settlers assaults to go unpunished, in stark contrast to its determined action against Palestinian terrorism.
Friday's deadly attack comes as part of a larger trend of Jewish radicalization — one day after an anti-gay ultra-Orthodox extremist stabbed revelers at Jerusalem's Gay Pride Parade, and two days after Israeli authorities indicted two young Jewish activists for a recent arson attack that devastated a famous Holy Land church. All have been strongly condemned across the Israeli political spectrum, but the trend has raised fears that a radicalized and violent ultraconservative fringe is growing from within the country's hard-line nationalist-religious camp.
Centrist leader Yair Lapid summarized the recent developments by saying Israel was "at war" with the extremists in its midst.
Here's a look at the phenomenon and what may lie ahead.
WHO ARE THE ATTACKERS?
No one has been arrested yet for Friday's grisly attack, but because of the target and the Hebrew graffiti found on the charred home suspicion immediately fell on Jewish settler extremists who have carried out violent attacks before. So-called "price tag" attacks have been used by Jewish settlers for years to avenge, in a sense, both Palestinian attacks and also official Israeli steps they see as favoring the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority has documented dozens of vandalism cases against homes, trees and livestock this year already. Until Friday, no one had been killed.
HOW WIDESPREAD IS "JEWISH TERRORISM?"
Despite the recent spike, it still exists only on the fringes of society. The recent attacks vary in nature. Last month's attackers of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish near the Sea of Galilee belonged to a far-flung anti-Christian extremist group that was looking to bring about religious "redemption." The Gay Parade stabber was an ultra-Orthodox Jew, rather than a West Bank settler, who had attacked gay marchers before and was disowned by his own community. However, the West Bank settler movement is strongly religious in nature — with devout Jews much more prominent there than in the population at large. Friday's attackers of the Dawabsheh family of Duma, near the city of Nablus, appear to be linked to the hilltop youths who have carried out the "price tag" attacks of the past.
Still, while Israel's rightist government has condemned them, the phenomenon has grown out of its political base, tapping into a deeper cultural war in Israel. At its essence this pits liberal and progressive elements against religious and nationalist ones, with the latter generally supporting the West Bank settlement enterprise and a larger role of religion in daily life.
HOW HAS ISRAEL RESPONDED TO THE THREAT?
In words, the attacks have been uniformly rejected by all elements of mainstream Israeli society. Friday's attack brought out some of the strongest language yet. Gilad Erdan, Israel's minister for internal security, invoked the lessons of World War II by saying that "a people whose children were burned in the Holocaust must do some deep soul searching when it produces people who burn others humans."
But in deeds, Israel has failed to quell the phenomenon. Often attackers have gotten away or evaded arrests for a long time. In addition to expressing his shame over those who "have lost their humanity," President Reuven Rivlin acknowledged that "to my great sorrow, until now it seems we have been lax in our treatment of the phenomena of Jewish terrorism. Perhaps we did not internalize that we are faced with a determined and dangerous, ideological group, which aims to destroy the fragile bridges which we work so tirelessly to build."
WHAT DO THE PALESTINIANS SAY?
The Palestinians generally reject the Israeli condemnations and claim the military allows the outlaw settlers to act with impunity while the government continues to promote settlement expansion that hinders the prospects of the establishment of a future Palestinian state. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called Friday's incident a "war crime" and said it would be part of the Palestinians' case against Israel at the International Criminal Court. Palestinian official Saeb Erekat called it a "brutal assassination" and held Israel accountable.
COULD THIS ATTACK SPARK A LARGER WAVE OF VIOLENCE?
The last time Jews killed an Arab was last summer, when extremists burned alive a Palestinian 16-year-old named Mohammed Abu Khdeir in a revenge attack after three Jewish teens were abducted and later found killed. The violence spiraled into what eventually became a 50-day war between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. Israeli authorities fear that even an isolated incident could set off a chain reaction that could lead to a violent Palestinian uprising like the one that gripped the region a decade ago. The Israel military has deployed more troops to quell any unrest and Netanyahu even placed a rare call to Abbas to try and prevent an escalation.