Attacks spark calls for Israeli crackdown on Jewish extremists

Jerusalem (AFP) - Israel faced mounting pressure on Sunday to crack down on Jewish extremists after a firebombing that killed a Palestinian child and the stabbing of six Gay Pride marchers drew widespread outrage.

Friday's firebombing of a Palestinian family's home in the West Bank by assailants suspected of being Jewish settlers has further inflamed tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, with clashes breaking out in various cities.

On Sunday morning, Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli police at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque, one of Islam's holiest sites, though calm was later restored.

The stabbings at the Gay Pride march in Jerusalem on Thursday night has also put a spotlight on Jewish extremists, with an ultra-Orthodox man accused of carrying out the violence only weeks after being released from prison for a similar attack.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has firmly condemned both attacks and called the firebombing "terrorism" -- a word usually used by Israelis to refer to violence by Palestinians. On Sunday, he spoke of "zero tolerance" for such acts.

But despite the prime minister's strong words, many have accused his government of failing to address the problem of Jewish extremism and of going dangerously far in its support for right-wing settler groups.

"Those who incite against Israel's Arab citizens should not be surprised when churches and mosques are set on fire, and when finally a baby is burned in the middle of the night," ex-president Shimon Peres told an anti-violence rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday night.

His comments were seen as at least partly directed at Netanyahu, who on election day in March caused outrage when he warned that Arabs were being mobilised "in droves" to the ballot boxes.

Last week, Education Minister Naftali Bennett addressed protesters at a West Bank outpost where settlers clashed with police when authorities moved in to seize two buildings ruled illegal by the Israeli High Court.

On the same day demolition of the two unfinished buildings began, Netanyahu, who has only a one-seat majority in parliament, approved the immediate construction of 300 new homes in the same area.

- 'Incomprehensible' -

While Netanyahu and others have sought to avoid further escalation since the arson attack, no arrests have been announced.

The firebombing which killed 18-month-old Ali Saad Dawabsha also left his parents and four-year-old brother critically wounded. Hospital officials said Sunday their lives remained at risk.

The family's small brick and cement home in the village of Duma was gutted by fire, while a Jewish Star of David was spray-painted on a wall along with the words "revenge" and "long live the Messiah".

The graffiti was indicative of so-called "price tag" violence -- nationalist-motivated hate crimes by Jewish extremists. Some have speculated that the attack was revenge for the demolition of the two buildings last week.

On Sunday, Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon authorised the use of a controversial detention procedure for suspects in the firebombing generally reserved for Palestinians.

The procedure, known as administrative detention, allows suspects to be held indefinitely without charge, theoretically to allow investigators to gather evidence while preventing further attacks.

Israel has been accused of abusing the procedure to keep militants behind bars without trial.

But many have urged the government to do more and questioned why Jewish extremist attacks rarely lead to arrests and convictions.

"It is incomprehensible that a state... which has been a role model for how to fight terrorism and whose doctrines are copied by many security agencies around the globe, finds it difficult to deal with a few hundred terrorists and their helpers," security analyst Yossi Melman wrote in the Jerusalem Post.

According to Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, some 85 percent of cases involving "ideological crimes" are closed due to investigative failures with no charges filed.

As for the suspect in the Gay Pride stabbings, who was arrested immediately after the attack, police have faced questions over how he was allowed near the march so soon after he had completed a jail sentence for a similar crime.

He had also posted a letter on the Internet speaking of the "abomination" of a Gay Pride parade being held in the Holy City and the need to stop it.

Netanyahu said on Sunday that he had "instructed security and law enforcement officials to use all legal means at their disposal" to deal with the suspects in both attacks.

"We are determined to vigorously fight manifestations of hate, fanaticism and terrorism from whatever side," he said.