JERUSALEM (AFP) — Israel expressed outrage on Sunday after a mob of Jewish settlers rampaged through a Palestinian village in the West Bank to avenge the stabbing of a nine-year-old boy in a nearby settlement.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert condemned Saturday's settler attack on the village, during which four Palestinians were shot and wounded, and vowed to halt settler "pogroms" in the occupied territory.
"This phenomenon of taking the law into their own hands and of brutal and violent attacks is intolerable and will receive the strictest and most severe treatment," Olmert told reporters ahead of a weekly cabinet meeting.
"There will be no pogroms against non-Jewish residents in the state of Israel," he added.
Jewish settlers stormed into the village of Asira al-Qibliya after an intruder burned down a mobile home and stabbed and lightly wounded a nine-year-old boy in the Yitzhar settlement -- an extreme right-wing bastion.
Olmert said the stabbing attack was "serious and severe, and our security forces are dealing with this issue."
But he sharply condemned the actions of the settlers, saying they had attacked the village, fired live rounds and "hurt Palestinian residents, with no reason to believe that any of them are linked in any way to the attack."
Israeli troops had sealed off Asira al-Qibliya and two other nearby villages after the knife attack to search for the intruder and to try to prevent settlers from carrying out revenge attacks.
Israeli army and police units were in the village when the settlers hurled rocks, broke windows and shot into the air, but the security forces did not fire any live rounds or rubber bullets, and did not arrest anyone.
A military official speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity on Saturday said two settlers had been briefly detained and had their weapons confiscated.
Days earlier Israeli troops and settlers had clashed at another West Bank settlement, raising fears of a territory-wide escalation in settler violence.
"It is hard to ignore the fact that violence is on the rise in the West Bank between settlers and Palestinians and between settlers and the security forces," Israel's Haaretz newspaper said in an editorial.
"The weakness of the Israel Defence Forces (army) is particularly visible," it said. "The settlers are unrestrained."
Local rights groups have long accused Israeli forces of failing to combat settler violence against Palestinians, especially around Yitzhar and other hardline settlements that surround the northern West Bank town of Nablus.
"The violence against the villagers in Asira al-Qibliya is just one case among hundreds of attacks against the Palestinians," a spokesman for the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem told AFP.
"The settlers have virtual immunity. Even if they are arrested they are rarely prosecuted, and even when they are prosecuted they are given ridiculously light sentences."
The Palestinians have repeatedly said the settlements themselves -- built contrary to international law on land occupied by Israel in the 1967 war -- are the greatest obstacle to the Middle East peace process.
Ghassan Daghlas, head of village affairs in the Nablus governorate, said settler violence grows worse every year, peaking during the autumn olive-picking season when farmers are targeted.
The governorate has documented more than 30 settler attacks on Palestinians this year, compared with 21 in all of 2005, 24 in 2006, and 28 last year, he said.
"The Israeli army provides protection (for the settlers), but they do not prevent them from carrying out violence."
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