A Palestinian toddler was burned to death and members of his family were critically wounded on Friday when their home in the West Bank was firebombed by attackers believed to be extremist Jewish settlers, the police and army said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the killing an act of terrorism, and Israeli security forces went on alert as Palestinian protesters clashed with troops in several locations in the West Bank. In Washington, the Obama administration condemned the incident, describing it as a “vicious terrorist attack.”
Reflecting concerns about a slide into further violence, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin issued a statement in Arabic appealing for restraint and expressing pain that “members of my people chose the path of terror and lost their humanity.”
In an unusual gesture, both Netanyahu and Rivlin visited an Israeli hospital where two of the victims were being treated.
The attack posed a challenge by Jewish militants to Israel’s right-wing government, whose policies have dimmed prospects for a renewal of peace efforts with the Palestinians and deepened the impasse.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the attack would be brought before the International Criminal Court, where the Palestinians have threatened to lodge war crimes complaints against Israel for its settlement policies and last summer’s war in Gaza. Just this week, Amnesty International issued a report saying Israel was guilty of war crimes for its “relentless and massive bombardment” in Gaza last year.
Friday’s attackers struck in the early morning hours, hurling gasoline bombs into two homes in the village of Duma southeast of Nablus in the northern West Bank. One of the buildings was empty, but a sleeping family in the second home was caught as flames engulfed the house.
Ibrahim Dawabsheh, a neighbor, told the Reuters news agency that he had seen two masked men outside the house after he heard shouts for help and rushed to the scene.
“We found the parents outside with burns, they said there was another son in the house, we brought him out and they said there was another boy inside, but we couldn’t reach the bedroom because of the fire. He was left inside until rescue forces came,” he said.
The child, 18-month old Ali Dawabsheh, died, and his parents and 4-year-old brother were hospitalized in Israel in critical condition with extensive burns.
The arsonists scrawled a Jewish star and Hebrew graffiti on the house reading “Revenge!” and “Long live the Messiah king.”
The attack was the worst by Jewish extremists since a Palestinian youth was kidnapped and burned to death in Jerusalem a year ago, retaliation for the abduction and slaying of three Jewish teens in the West Bank.
A police spokeswoman said the firebombing in Duma bore the markings of so-called “Price Tag” actions, in which militant settlers exact a “price” by assaulting Palestinians and their property in response to moves by Israeli authorities to curb wildcat settlement expansion.
Israeli forces this week demolished two unauthorized buildings under construction in a West Bank settlement near Ramallah amid confrontations with crowds of settler youths. Scores of settlers were later evicted after they occupied the site of an evacuated settlement north of Nablus.
Netanyahu called the lethal arson “an act of terrorism in every respect,” and he said he had ordered the security forces “to use all means at our disposal to apprehend the murderers and bring them speedily to justice.”
“The state of Israel takes a hard line against terrorism, regardless of the perpetrators,” Netanyahu said in a statement. He later spoke by telephone with Abbas, conveying a similar message, his office said.
A spokesman for Abbas said the Israeli government bore responsibility for the violence. “Such a crime would not have occurred if the Israeli government did not insist on continuing settlement and protecting settlers,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh said in a statement released by the official Palestinian news agency WAFA.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, called the attack “a direct consequence of decades of impunity given by the Israeli government to settler terrorism.”
Militant settlers are suspected of numerous attacks in the West Bank in recent years, including the torching of mosques, cars and homes, but few people have been prosecuted.
“Until now it appears that we have been lax in dealing with the phenomenon of Jewish terror,” Rivlin said in a statement. “The state of Israel and Israeli society have some soul searching to do. Soul searching that will be expressed in deeds, not only words.”