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Jul 31, 8:27 AM EDT

Attack in West Bank kills Palestinian child, homes torched


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DUMA, West Bank (AP) -- A sleeping toddler was burned to death when suspected Jewish assailants set fire to two Palestinian homes in a West Bank village early Friday, an attack that also critically wounded the child's 4-year-old brother and parents and outraged both Israelis and Palestinians.

The attack threatened to set off another violent escalation and further stirred Palestinian fears that Israel allows attacks by militant Jewish settlers in the West Bank to go unpunished, though Israel says it does its best to track down assailants.

Palestinian officials blamed Israel for the attack while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the incident a "terror attack."

According to the Israeli military, the suspects entered the village of Duma, near the city of Nablus, where they set the homes ablaze and scrawled graffiti in Hebrew, including "Long live the Messiah," `'revenge" and "price tag" and then fled the scene. The so-called "price tag" attacks have been used by Jewish settlers for years to exact a price on any Israeli steps they see as favoring the Palestinians.

The slain child was identified as 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh. His 4-year-old brother Ahmad, father Saed and mother Riham were seriously hurt, according to Gassan Daghlas, a Palestinian official from the Nablus area.

Daghlas said Jewish settlers broke the window of a house and flung a fire bomb inside, "causing a quick and huge fire." The Israeli military said three people were critically wounded and one was slightly injured. The critically wounded were taken to Israeli hospitals for treatment, the military said.

Lee Gat, a spokeswoman for Tel Hashomer hospital near Tel Aviv, said Riham had life-threatening burns over 90 percent of her body while her son Ahmad had burns over 60 percent of his body.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the incident a "war crime" and said it would be part of the Palestinians' case against Israel at the International Criminal Court. Palestinian official Saeb Erekat blamed Israel for the incident, calling it a "brutal assassination"

"This is a direct consequence of decades of impunity given by the Israeli government to settler terrorism," he said. "This is the consequence of a culture of hate funded and incentivized by the Israeli government and the impunity granted by the international community."

The attack caused simmering tensions to boil over and some 2,000 protesters in the West Bank city of Hebron clashed with Israeli security forces at a previously planned demonstration, the military said. It added that forces fired into the rock-throwing crowd after it did not disperse and "a hit was confirmed," without elaborating - a reference to someone being shot.

Also, Israeli police limited entrance to Friday prayers at a Jerusalem mosque to men over 50, with no restrictions on women. The prayers passed without incident, the police later said. In neighboring Jordan, about 1,000 protesters chanted slogans against Israel and condemned Friday's incident.

Jewish extremists have for years attacked Palestinian property, as well as mosques, churches and even Israeli military bases in opposition to what they see as the Israeli government's favorable policies toward the Palestinians, although it is rare for anyone to be killed in such attacks.

Last summer, Jewish extremists burned alive a Palestinian 16-year-old named Mohammed Abu Khdeir, in a revenge attack after three Jewish teens were abducted and later found killed. The violence eventually spiraled into what later became a 50-day war between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza.

Friday's incident came after Israel this week demolished homes in a West Bank settlement built without prior authorization. Israel shortly after announced plans for new settler homes in the same settlement and elsewhere.

Critics say police have been slow to apprehend the Jewish assailants and Palestinians say the military has failed to protect them from attacks by militant Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

The "price tag" attacks have been condemned across the Israeli political spectrum.

In the village of Duma, the interior walls of the one-floor home were blackened and still radiated heat as Israeli police surveyed the scene Friday morning. A brown couch was covered in white ash as charred debris lay strewn around the property. A second house nearby, which was empty, was also set on fire.

Inside the torched home, relatives scraped through the ash and soot to salvage any belongings. They found a partly burnt photograph of the slain child and his bottle, still one-third full of milk.

Mohammed Ibrahim Dawabsheh, a neighbor, said he saw the mother running out of the house on fire and then covered her with a sheet to try to extinguish her flaming body. His son, Ibrahim, said he saw two masked men flee the scene. Another neighbor, Mohammed Dawabsheh, said he tried to push into the blaze to save the child but the flames were too strong.

"I never imagined that this could happen, that someone could come and burn people alive while they are sleeping," said Hassan Dawabsheh, the slain child's uncle. "I don't know what those people were thinking. What do they have inside their hearts and minds?"

The Israeli military said it sent troop reinforcements to the West Bank, fearing the incident could trigger unrest. Hamas, the militant Islamic group that rules Gaza, called for a day of rage over the incident.

Condemnations came swiftly from Israeli leaders Friday, with Netanyahu issuing a stern statement against the violence.

"I am shocked over this reprehensible and horrific act. This is an act of terrorism in every respect. The State of Israel takes a strong line against terrorism regardless of who the perpetrators are," he said.

Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner called the incident "nothing short of a barbaric act of terrorism."

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel would not allow "Jewish terrorists" to carry out such acts.

"We will not allow Jewish terrorists to harm the lives of Palestinians in Judea and Samaria," he said in a statement, referring to the West Bank by its biblical name. "We will fight against them firmly and with all means and tools at our disposal."

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Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg contributed to this report from Tel Aviv, Israel.

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