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An Arab-Israeli boy inspects a burnt mosque after it was torched in the northern Israeli Bedouin village of Tuba-Zangariya on Monday.

Israeli credibility to protect its own Arab population is on the line after an arson attack on a unique Arab village in northern Israel.

In the early hours of Monday morning, someone crept into the large mosque of the village of Tuba-Zangariya and, in a manner similar to attacks recently carried out in the West Bank, set fire to holy books and a carpet, causing considerable smoke damage. On the walls, a vandal spray-painted in Hebrew, "Mohammed is a pig," as well as the words "Revenge" and "Palmer" (apparent references to Asher Palmer, a West Bank settler, and his infant son killed last week when their car crashed following an apparent stoning of the vehicle).

The arsonists, however, picked the wrong community on which to take out their revenge.

This Bedouin village of 5,700 (it sits just a few kilometres north of the Sea of Galilee) is one of the few Arab communities in Israel in which the men serve in the Israel's military, the Israel Defence Forces.

And not just some of the men: "By agreement with the village elders all the boys in Tuba-Zangariya serve in the IDF," said an Israeli military official who spoke on the condition of remaining anonymous.

The Israeli government was quick to express its acute embarrassment and villagers their total outrage.

"This is a horrifying thing," said Essam, a young resident of the village, as he surveyed the scene Monday. "My grandfather was in the Palmach," he said, referring to the elite fighting unit of pre-state Israel's army.

Indeed, some 45 villagers reportedly served in the Palmach during the 1948-49 war that established Israel's existence. They participated in fighting to take back two kibbutzim captured by Syrian forces that had descended from the nearby Golan Heights, and they later fought in Haifa.

Since that time, the young men of Tuba-Zangariya have served their country. No wonder Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was described as being "boiling mad" when he heard the news of the mosque attack, and the country's President and two chief rabbis flew to the scene to express sorrow for the community and contempt for an act that resembled pogroms against Jews in eastern Europe a century ago.

"It is unconscionable that a Jew would harm something that is holy to another religion. This act is un-Jewish, illegal, immoral, and brings upon us heavy shame," President Shimon Peres said.

"The mosque is a red line," said a Muslim villager interviewed on Israel 2 television. "Someone will pay for this."

About 200 young residents of Tuba-Zangariya marched to a nearby junction and set a number of car tires on fire, tying up traffic. When police intervened, the protesters threw rocks at them until the crowd was dispersed with the use of tear gas. No injuries or arrests were reported.

Israeli police have said nothing about suspects in the desecration of the mosque, some of whom are believed to have been taken into custody for questioning. But villagers in Tuba-Zangariya blame rabbis from the nearby Jewish town of Safed for inciting such violence. Safed's chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu, launched a controversial anti-Arab campaign last year prohibiting Jews in the area from renting apartments or rooms to Arabs. Several hundred Arab Israeli students attending college in Safed were his primary target.

Asked Monday on Israel Radio if he would condemn the attack on the Tuba-Zangariya mosque, Rabbi Eliyahu said there was no evidence that Jews had carried out the attack.

"It makes more sense, based on the facts, that this was a feud and not done by Jews," he said. "I've never seen a Jew vandalize a mosque."

Although such apparent acts of vengeance have recently occurred in the West Bank, a similar attack targeted another mosque in the northern Israeli village of Ibtin last year. Jewish extremists are suspected in all of the incidents.