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Israeli officials try to restore calm after cemetery vandalism

By Guy Azriel, CNN
updated 8:31 PM EDT, Sun October 9, 2011
Some of the graves were spray-painted with graffiti while others were smashed at two cemeteries in Jaffa.
Some of the graves were spray-painted with graffiti while others were smashed at two cemeteries in Jaffa.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Israeli president: "The crime is terrible (and) against everything that we stand for"
  • Mayor: "We will find a way to return to normal"
  • More than 100 graves are vandalized in two cemeteries -- one Christian, one Muslim
  • A Molotov cocktail is thrown at a synagogue

Jerusalem (CNN) -- Israeli officials were working on repairs at a cemetery in an Arab section of the coastal city of Jaffa Sunday after vandals covered graves with graffiti.

"I am shocked. We should not permit it. It was done by a tiny minority, but the crime is terrible," Israeli President Shimon Peres told CNN Sunday. "To try and violate the holiness of a cemetery is against everything that we stand for, so both in public terms and religious terms, we shall take all the measures to get hold of these criminals and put an end to it."

More than 100 graves were vandalized in the Muslim cemetery of al-Kazakhana and at a nearby Christian cemetery in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa, according to residents and a CNN producer who visited the locations.

Words spray-painted in Hebrew on the gravestones included "death to all Arabs," "death to all Russians" and "price tag." Graffiti also included words associated with a local football fan club.

"Price tag" is a term frequently used by radical Israeli settlers to denote reprisal attacks against Palestinians in response to moves by the Israeli government to evacuate illegal West Bank outposts, or as retribution for attacks by Palestinians.

Mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa Ron Huldai decried the vandalism and met with leaders of the Arab community to discuss it Sunday.

"I expect the hands of those who do such crimes to be cut off," he said. "The public in Jaffa has always been the most mature above all the extremists. We will find the way to return to normal (relations) despite the provocations."

After authorities found the graffiti, Arab and Jewish residents of Jaffa held a small protest against racism and for coexistence Saturday night. During their demonstration, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a synagogue elsewhere in the city.

No one was injured and the building was not damaged in that incident, but police were investigating.

The vandalism in Jaffa took place less than a week after the arson of a mosque in northern Israel and the painting of swastikas on the walls of a Jewish holy site in the northern West Bank.

Residents say the vandalism took place Friday evening as the Yom Kippur holiday was beginning in Israel, but police suggested it might have taken place a day or two prior.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also condemned the incident Sunday and pledged to prosecute those responsible.

"We are not prepared to tolerate any act of vandalism, especially that directed against religious sensitivities," Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Police were still following leads and investigating the case Sunday, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. No arrests had been made.

Contrary to previous reports, police said graves were spray painted but were not smashed.

Police officials said they had stepped up patrols in the area and were reaching out to community leaders.

But one lawmaker said Sunday that officials had not done enough to stop such attacks.

"The Israeli government is responsible, Many times something like this has happened and they did nothing, and so these people who do that are not deterred. They think they will not catch them and they will not be punished," said Dr. Jamal Zahalka, a member of the Israeli Knesset. "We call here now for everybody, Jewish and Arab to unite in a front against racism. The situation is deteriorating rapidly. After the mosque, the cemetery and tomorrow, actions against people. It will not stop "

According to Israeli police, reprisal attacks have increased in the past year, prompting them to create a special investigative unit.

In the past year, four West Bank mosques have been set ablaze. The United Nations has reported a measurable spike in violence against Palestinian property in 2011.

On Wednesday, a shrine holy to Jews was desecrated in the West Bank.

Jewish worshippers arrived at Joseph's Tomb in the city of Nablus to find swastikas and graffiti sprayed on the walls. It is unclear when the graffiti was left there. The site is under Palestinian Authority rule, and Jews visit every couple of months to pray.

CNN's Izzy Lemberg, Dan Morgan and Kevin Flower contributed to this report.

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