Who's Burning Palestinian Mosques in the West Bank and Israel?

There have been six torchings in the West Bank and Israel in the past two years—but not a single indictment. Dan Ephron reports.

12.13.11 8:22 PM ET

The arsonists crept into the Palestinian village of Brukin in the middle of the night last week—there were at least two and as many as six of them, according to residents. First they set fire to a backhoe and a car, burning them to shells. Then they tried to force open the large metal doors of the town mosque, a stone structure with a blue dome and a minaret that rises high over the West Bank. When that failed, the perpetrators torched the entrance and sprayed graffiti in Hebrew on an outside wall. “They knew the building was new, and they wanted to destroy it,” said Ismail Abu Nasser, a 60-year-old worshiper I met at the mosque on a visit recently.

The attack marked the sixth time in the past two years that mosques have been burned either in the West Bank or Israel, a trend with potentially volatile consequences. Police link the arsons to a broader uptick in violent acts by Jewish extremists against Palestinians in what the Israeli media have come to refer to euphemistically as “price tag” attacks. A police spokesman told The Daily Beast that authorities set up a special task force two months ago and are taking the incidents very seriously. And yet, in the long months since the first arson took place in late 2009, no one has been indicted and not a single suspect has been held for more than a few days.

Israel deploys both police and members of its internal security service—known by the acronym Shabak or Shin Bet—to maintain order in the West Bank, which it has occupied since 1967. Most of their law-enforcement effort is aimed at Palestinians, but both bodies also monitor radical settlers. In fact, the Shabak has an entire department devoted to foiling plots by Jewish extremists, a division that has received increasingly more attention and bigger budgets since the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a religious Jew.

So why hasn’t more been done about these attacks? 

Police say the cases have gone unresolved mostly because the perpetrators, thought to be wayward youth in their teens and 20s, are not centrally organized. They operate individually or in small teams, and share their plans with no one outside the group. “These aren’t cells so much as a group of individuals operating on their own,” says Chief Inspector Micky Rosenfeld, the foreign-press spokesman for the police and a former counterterrorism officer. With few people in on the secret, the chances of police informants hearing about the attacks are slim, he says.

But people familiar with the situation in the West Bank say another factor is at work as well: an ingrained reluctance among law enforcers in the West Bank to aggressively pursue fellow Jews. Like other Israelis, policemen are accustomed to viewing Palestinians as enemies. Some are themselves residents of the settlements. “It makes perfect sense that those people are not eager to enforce the law on violent settlers,” says Sarit Michaeli, the spokeswoman for the Israeli human-rights group B’Tselem. She says B’Tselem field workers have seen countless instances when soldiers or police witness settlers abusing Palestinians or uprooting their olive trees and do nothing to stop them. Even when the incidents are caught on tape—B’Tselem has handed out more than 100 video cameras to Palestinians around the West Bank—she says police are slow to respond.

Even when Jewish suspects are arrested, they don’t usually spend much time in prison. While Palestinians are subject to Israeli military law and can be held for long stretches without a remand, Jews in the two-tier system must be brought before a judge within 24 hours (12 if the suspect is a minor). As a result, police rarely have time to wring confessions from Jewish extremists, who know to keep their mouths shut in lockup (one settler wrote a whole guidebook on how to face down police interrogators). Instead, investigators must rely on old-fashioned detective work to build indictments, like questioning witnesses and taking DNA samples.

That would be fine, except that wringing confessions—and not doing detective work—appears to be the particular skill set of Israeli law enforcers in the West Bank. Most indictments handed down against Palestinians are based primarily on confessions, according to human-rights groups. As for the shoe leather, an investigation published in the daily Haaretz newspaper last week concluded that policemen in the West Bank “consistently fail to conduct even the most basic investigatory actions, such as taking fingerprints, checking alibis, questioning witnesses, and conducting identification lineups.” Rosenfeld, the police spokesman, says that in the case of the mosque burning at Brukin, detectives did in fact dust for fingerprints and conduct other forensic testing. “We get all the resources to the site and we carry out a proper investigation,” he says. One can only pray.