JERUSALEM, Dec 13 (Maayan Lubell/Reuters) - An Israeli minister denounced a group of hardline Jewish settlers
as terrorists on Tuesday after they vandalized an Israeli army base in the latest in a series of attacks in the occupied West Bank.
Israeli Army Spokesman Yoav Mordechai said there had been a string of grave incidents in the West Bank after rumors spread of an imminent eviction of settlement outposts.
Apart from the army base incident, settlers also staged a protest in a military zone close to the border with Jordan.
The incidents were a sign of escalating tensions between the army and hardline nationalist settlers, who believe they have a biblical birthright to live where ever they want in the West Bank - land where the Palestinians want to create a state.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
condemned the incident. Security forces should be focused on defending citizens and not dealing with such outrageous breaches of the law, he said in a statement.
Netanyahu later convened a special consultation with ministers and senior security officials, his office said.
Other ministers took their condemnations a step further. These are criminals, Jewish terrorists who are harming the soldiers who defend them and the security of Israel, said Civil Defense Minister Matan Vilnai.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak
said in a statement that the violent actions by a group of extremist criminals bear characteristics of terrorism and are unacceptable.
Settlers vandalized a West Bank army base for the first time in September, after structures in a settlement outpost were demolished. Militant settlers have also been blamed for setting at least five mosques on fire this year.
Mordechai told Army Radio the latest incidents began with stone-throwing.
Dozens of right-wing activists threw stones at Palestinian (civilian) and Israeli army vehicles, he said. They then entered an army base, cursed, threw paint bottles, punctured army vehicle tires and smashed a car window.
Settlers had also thrown stones at a senior army commander. A police spokesman said one was arrested and that police were working to find more of the assailants.
In a separate incident, a group of hardline settlers crossed into a military zone close to the border with Jordan during the night to demonstrate against a Jordanian protest over an Israeli decision to shut a bridge at Jerusalem's holiest site.
Israel closed the footbridge on Monday that leads up from Judaism's Western Wall to the sacred compound where the Muslim al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine stand. The wooden ramp was deemed unsafe by Jerusalem's city engineer.
Settler Hananel Dorfman, told Army Radio: It was a message to Jordan: we are not suckers, stop intervening in our internal affairs... or we will intervene in yours. Security forces evacuated the group out of the area.
Mordechai said he thought the incursion next to the Jordan border and the subsequent attack on the army base near the Palestinian city of Nablus were connected. There is a small group of extremists who are trying to drag the army into politics, he said.
Some 300,000 Israelis live in the West Bank, which the government calls by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria.
The territory was captured in a 1967 war and is home to 2.5 million Palestinians. The International Court of Justice views settlements Israel has built in the areas as illegal. Israel disputes this, but has not sanctioned all the outposts that dot the land. (Writing by Maayan Lubell; editing by Crispian Balmer and David Stamp)