JERUSALEM : An arson attack targeting first-grade classrooms at a Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem sparked a wave of condemnation Sunday as months of racial tensions in the city showed little sign of abating.

The attack took place on Saturday evening at the Hand-in-Hand bilingual school which is a rare symbol of coexistence in a city fraught by division which has seen growing friction between Jews and the Palestinians, who live in annexed east Jerusalem. Scrawled on the walls were offensive anti-Arab slogans in Hebrew reading “Death to Arabs” and “There’s no coexistence with cancer,” police said, describing the attack as a “very serious incident”.

At a cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the attack and pledged to act “forcefully” to return “the rule of law” across all parts of the city.

And Justice Minister Tzipi Livni pledged a “zero tolerance” approach to anyone behind such acts of racist violence.

“I will work determinedly against everyone who acts against the law and expresses through violence the racist demon which has emerged in Israeli society - whether it is through hateful graffiti, arson or other forms of violence,” she told reporters at the school.

Nadia Knane, the school’s headmistress, said one of the first-grade classrooms had been badly damaged by the fire, and that the attackers had tried to set alight another classroom. “After I saw what was written, I realised it was not just a fire. They wrote ‘Death to Arabs’ and ‘Kahana was right’ - words which have a lot of meaning,” she told army radio.

Meir Kahana was a virulently anti-Arab rabbi whose Kach party was banned over incitement to racial hatred but whose ideology still inspires loyalty among Jewish extremists.

“The school had been targeted several times in recent months but every other time was outside the school. This is the first time it was inside,” the headmistress said. “The fact that they went into a first grade class is really crossing a red line.”

Inside the classroom, blackened and charred books were piled in the middle of the floor and the walls and ceiling were badly burned. On the balcony outside were the words “Death to Arabs”.

Outside, scores of people gathered to express support for the school and its pupils and teachers and to denounce the attack, rallying under banners in Hebrew and Arabic reading “Spread the light instead of terror” and “No to hatred, no to racism, yes to coexistence, yes to partnership”.

Speaking to AFP, Hatam Mattar, head of the parents’ committee, denounced it as “a barbaric attack”.

Shuli Dichter, chief executive of the Hand-in Hand foundation, which manages five of the country’s seven bi-lingual schools, said it was time to change the public atmosphere in order to prevent such attacks.

“In the past months, we‘ve witnessed... a wave of racism (that) is dangerous, even physically dangerous,” he told army radio. “If we manage to create a public atmosphere of a shared society between Jews and Arabs we will be able to prevent acts like this in future. “There is a guard on the gate but such lone acts are very difficult to stop.”

Jerusalem’s deputy mayor Rachel Azaria visited the school late Saturday, denouncing the attack as “a horrific crime perpetrated by people who want to destroy any place that creates real cooperation between Jews and Arabs”. “We will not let them do this,” she said.

Education Minister Shai Piron said it as a “violent and despicable incident” and “a serious affront to the fabric of Jewish-Arab relations”.

The school is located on the Green Line separating west Jerusalem from the annexed eastern sector, and has 624 pupils.

In the past few years it has been targeted by a string of racist graffiti attacks, most recently during Israel’s 50-day war against Hamas militants in July and August.