Vandals torched a mosque in northern Israel overnight in a suspected revenge attack by rightwing extremists that sparked angry responses from the premier and president.
The mosque in the Bedouin village of Tuba Zangaria in the northern Galilee region sustained heavy damage in the overnight attack, during which arsonists scrawled the words "tag" and "revenge" on the walls.
Police called the attack "a very severe price tag incident" -- a term which usually refers to acts of vengeance against Palestinians and their property by Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
"The images are shocking and do not belong in the state of Israel," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office quoted him as saying.
"This is an act which is against the values of the state of Israel, which places supreme importance on freedom of religion and freedom of worship," he said.
Netanyahu immediately ordered the head of the Shin Bet internal security service to "quickly find those responsible for the arson at the mosque."
President Shimon Peres visited the scene of the attack accompanied by chief rabbis Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar.
"I feel nothing but shame over this atrocious incident," Peres said.
The attackers also graffitied the word "Palmer" on the walls in an apparent reference to Asher Palmer, an Israeli settler who died with his infant son in the southern West Bank on September 23 after his car was hit by stones thrown by Palestinians, causing it to crash.
Although such acts of vengeance normally occur in the occupied West Bank, a similar attack targeted another mosque in Ibtin village in Galilee last year.
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The overnight attack sparked anger in Tuba Zangaria, with a few hundred residents burning tyres and trying to block a road, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
Protesters threw stones at police who used tear gas to disperse them, Rosenfeld told AFP, saying police representatives were talking to village leaders "in an effort to calm things down."
Northern District Police Commander Roni Attia described the attack as "a very severe price tag incident" and set up a special investigation team to deal with it.
Police reinforcements were also deployed in the north.
Several government ministers spoke out against the attack but Muslim activists accused them of not doing enough.
"This is an atrocious act that harms the State of Israel," Defence Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement.
"The criminals who carried it out seek to destabilise the relations between Jews and Arabs, and severely damage Israel's reputation in the world."
Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch described it as "an atrocious and despicable act that cannot be ignored," in a statement which said the police were determined "to swiftly bring the perpetrators to justice."
But the Al-Aqsa Foundation, which seeks to preserve Muslim holy sites in Israel and the Palestinian territories, hit out at the authorities for not doing enough to prevent such attacks.
"This is crime against a house of God and a serious assault on an Islamic holy place, and the Israeli authorities are responsible for this crime," said the foundation, which is an offshoot of Israel's Islamic Movement.
The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee also issued a statement saying the incident was a reflection of the "racist" attitude being espoused by Israel's government, which was likely to have "repercussions, for which the Israeli authorities will bear responsibility."