A group of Israeli settlers was captured by Palestinians Tuesday, allegedly while en route to carry out a “price tag” attack, and held in a building in the village of Qusra near the West Bank city of Nablus. The settlers, some of whom were beaten by their captors, were handed over to the IDF after several hours.

They allegedly approached Qusra in an attempt to carry out an attack, in protest over the Israeli Civil Administration’s uprooting earlier in the day of a settler olive grove near the West Bank outpost of Esh Kodesh. The settlers, said to have come from the outpost, were reported to have clashed earlier with the Palestinian village’s residents.

They were surrounded and held captive for more than two hours, Channel 2 said. Conflicting Israeli and Palestinian reports put the number of settlers detained by the villagers at between eight and 16. During that time, the village elders prevented younger Palestinians from inflicting severe violence on the settlers and called the IDF to the area, the elders said. 

One resident of Qusra said that the group had “attacked a Palestinian youth” and were “surrounded in a house” in the village. The village mukhtar, Abed Al-Ain Wasli, told Channel 2 that the villagers “could have killed them” and buried their bodies in the hills, but spared their lives “because we are Muslims, we are responsible people… and because they are human beings even if they were hostile.”

The captive settlers were allowed to leave only after a Palestinian Authority liaison force came to the village, and the group were then handed over to the IDF one at a time. An Associated Press photographer said about 200 Palestinians had gathered by the time the troops arrived. People in the crowd kicked and spit at the settlers as they emerged one by one from the building under construction where they had been held, the photographer said. Police later arrested four of them for questioning, while three others were hospitalized for treatment.

“I was tending my fields when a group of around 30 settlers came down the hill and attacked us with stones,” one local Palestinian farmer told Reuters. “We chased them and they fled to a house under construction. They were cornered there and some of the people here beat them — they had attacked us on our own land.”

However, Pinchasi Bar-On, one of the settlers injured in the clash, said he and his friends were merely hiking in the area and were attacked unprovoked.

“We were a group of about 30 Israelis who went on a hike between Esh Kodesh and the nearby community of Eli,” Bar-On was quoted by the news site Walla as saying. “It’s a regular hike that we do every Tuesday. We’re all family men and we came without weapons, without clubs; we only wanted to take a hike. In the middle of our route, we were attacked by Arabs with trucks who pushed us into a house.”

Ziad Odeh, who leads prayers at Qusra’s mosque, disputed the claim that the settlers were hiking. He showed a Channel 2 reporter a sledgehammer that he said was brandished by one of the settlers and said they were also armed with metal pipes and wooden clubs.

Settlers from the Esh Kodesh outpost, leaving the West Bank village of Qusra, January 7 (photo credit: Zachariah, Rabbis for Human Rights)

Settlers from the Esh Kodesh outpost, leaving the West Bank village of Qusra, January 7 (photo credit: Zachariah, Rabbis for Human Rights)

If they were hiking, he said, “Why do they need to veil their faces? They came to attack farmers. They broke olive trees.”

“Of course we hit them,” he continued. “I have to defend myself. The [Palestinian] guys could have killed them. They held them for three hours. We told them we could have killed them but didn’t. ‘Next time maybe we’ll kill you,’ we said.”

The IDF said in a statement quoted by the AFP news agency: “During the confrontation mutual rock-hurling took place, injuring some of the Israelis.”

“Initial inquiry suggests the confrontation erupted following a law enforcement activity which took place earlier today in Esh Kodesh,” the statement added, alluding to allegations of price tag violence on the part of the settlers.

Price tag attacks, acts of vandalism usually performed against Arab property and typically carried out by Jewish nationalists in retribution for government moves, have become increasingly common in recent years. Mosques, churches, dovish Israeli groups and Israeli military bases have been targeted in such attacks.

In late December, a home and three vehicles in a West Bank refugee camp were vandalized, in a suspected “price tag” attack related to the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners and ongoing peace talks.

Israeli officials have vowed to crack down on the attacks.

AP contributed to this report.