JERUSALEM — A rash of audacious attacks on mosques, Muslim cemeteries and Israeli military bases have trained a light on the rising threat of Jewish extremists — and the country's long history of failing to rein them in.
Over the past two years, few extremists have been arrested and fewer still prosecuted in dozens of assaults. This week alone, extremists were blamed for a pair of mosque burnings as well as an attack on a West Bank military base that injured a top Israeli commander.
The violence has prompted rare attention from Israeli leaders, who have begun to call the perpetrators "terrorists" — a term usually reserved for Palestinian militants.
"Israel must not be overrun by a group of people who represent a grave danger to its essence and existence," President Shimon Peres, a Nobel peace laureate, said Thursday after meeting with mainstream West Bank settler leaders.
"We won't let them attack our soldiers. We won't let them ignite a religious war with our neighbors. We won't let them desecrate mosques. We won't let them harm Jews or Arabs," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told a meeting of his Likud Party late Thursday.
Moderate parliamentary opposition leader Tzipi Livni this week said the extremists were pushing Israel to the edge of civil war.
Critics say the violence is the result of authorities' long-standing policy of treating Jewish extremists, usually connected to religious elements in the settler movement, with kid gloves.
It took this week's attack on the military base in the West Bank, where assailants set fires, vandalized military vehicles and threw rocks at a district commander, to rouse the government to action.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu approved measures to clamp down on extremists, including giving soldiers the authority to make arrests, ban them from contentious areas and enable offenders to be tried in military courts.
Israel has used these tactics against Palestinian militants for decades, often drawing criticism from human rights groups. It remains unclear how far Israel will go in its push against its own citizens.
Allegations of government lenience toward Jewish extremist violence date back decades. In the 1980s, a government commission submitted a report deploring violence against Palestinians and accusing security forces of doing little to bring the attackers to justice.
Government authorities have sometimes been complicit, keeping legal challenges to Israeli construction in the West Bank tied up in court for years. The government also has failed to carry out repeated promises to knock down unauthorized settlement outposts. Israeli media reported the attack on the army base was linked to an impending outpost demolition.
"For decades, the (extremists) have seen how in matters concerning the settlements — the state laws, Supreme Court rulings and government resolutions — are no more than a basis for negotiations," commentator Ofer Shelah wrote in the Maariv daily.
Some dismiss the denunciations as lip service. The extremists are believed to receive guidance from rabbis at hard-line Jewish seminaries in the West Bank.