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Mosque attack part of tit-for-tat policy

    Who were the arsonists at Beit Fajar, and why would anybody want to torch a Palestinian mosque?

    The obvious answer is that it was an act of hatred, akin to when antisemites desecrate Jewish cemeteries in Europe: it is simply a bubbling over of the contempt that some settlers have for Palestinians.

    In all probability, however, the attack was not an expression of anti-Arab anger but rather a show staged by extremist settlers to communicate a specific message to the Israeli authorities. The Beit Fajar mosque was essentially caught in the crossfire.

    Settlers are focussed on finding ways to prevent the Israeli government and army from taking actions that run counter to their interests. So just over two years ago, an extremist fringe launched a new tactic called "price tag".

    The original impetus was that then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that he was going to dismantle some outposts. Until then, the settler response had been to converge on the site of an evacuation to try to hinder the operation. But most would arrive too late, when the battle was already lost and the army had completed the evacuation.

    Instigated by several settler activist committees - but shunned by the main settler umbrella organisation, the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria - "price tag" was to create a disincentive for the government or army to irk settlers again.

    The principle, outlined in settler newspapers, was for settlers to respond to every evacuation by wreaking havoc wherever they are in the West Bank. Methods include arson and road-blocking to force troops to abandon the evacuation and deal with the protesters' actions. The logic was: the more unrest generated by outpost evacuations and the more manpower needed for the aftermath, the more reluctant the government would be to order them and the army to carry them out.

    Grounds for unleashing "price tag" actions have since expanded from outpost evacuations to any act by the Israeli authorities that its advocates believe runs counter to their interests. Palestinian property is targeted, as well as roads.

    The Beit Fajar attack was most likely a warning shot by extremist settlers, a flexing of their muscles, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mulled extending the settlement freeze and as the future of the peace talks hung in the balance. They know that he knows that he can ill-afford an escalation of violence in the West Bank.

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