Israeli Military Police arrested 14 soldiers from the religious Netzah Yehuda battalion suspected of fighting with a group of young Bedouin men at a gas station in southern Israel last week, the army said Wednesday.
“The soldiers are suspected of the crimes of assault as a group, making threats and illegal use of their weapons,” the military said in a statement.
The 14 servicemen were scheduled to be brought before a judge on Wednesday in order to keep them in custody as the investigation into the incident continues, the Israel Defense Forces said.
The confrontation occurred in the predawn hours of last Thursday at Dvira Junction, just outside the predominantly Bedouin town of Rahat.
A video from the gas station shows the servicemen first arguing with the men, one of whom worked at the gas station. Moments later a soldier can be seen walking up to one of the men and shoving him. The man then slaps the soldier.
תיעוד| הרגע בו המתדלק בתחנת הדלק בדביר הותקף ע"י חיילי כפיר; הורי החיילים טוענים: "סיפור הבדואים הוא שקר וכזב, אינו תואם לא את סיפור ילדיהם ולא את דרכם המוסרית של בניהם"; דובר צה"ל: "ככל שיימצא כי חיילים חרגו מפקודות צה״ל או מהחוק הם יטופלו במלוא החומרה".@MaarivOnline pic.twitter.com/CnpiRulOv4
— Yasser Okbi (@OkbiYasser) October 21, 2019
The soldiers, who were all armed with Tavor assault rifles, and the unarmed men then begin fighting, mostly pushing and shoving each other. In their complaint to police, the Bedouin men said some of the soldiers also hit them with the butts of their guns.
As the incident involved soldiers, the Israel Police transferred the complaint to the IDF Military Police, which launched an investigation, the army said.
“If any of the soldiers are found to have violated IDF orders or the law, they will be dealt with severely,” the military said in a statement.
The case appears to rest largely on who instigated the fight.
The parents and attorneys of the soldiers claim that the Bedouin men threatened and harassed the servicemen as they arrived at the gas station at approximately 1 a.m. last Thursday, coming home from the funeral of 14-year-old Asher Hazut, who died after being struck by lightning earlier in the week.
The father of one of the soldiers told Israel’s Kan broadcaster that one of the Bedouin men threatened to “stab a soldier in the heart.”
The Bedouin men rejected the soldiers’ claims, saying that the servicemen initiated the confrontation, yelling that they were “stinky Arabs” and calling “death to Arabs.”
A brother of the gas station employee involved in the altercation also denied the soldier’s father’s allegation that they had threatened the servicemen with a knife.
“If there were threats with a knife or an attempted stabbing, why didn’t they call the police or make an arrest? If such a thing had occurred, the driver of their bus… wouldn’t have called to them, ‘Come on, get on quick so we can get out of here because they called the police,'” the brother told the Maariv newspaper.
Soldiers in the religious Netzah Yehuda Battalion of the Kfir Infantry Brigade, which operates in the West Bank, have been at the center of several controversies connected to right-wing extremism and violence against Palestinians.
In March, five soldiers from the unit were convicted of beating a pair of handcuffed and blindfolded Palestinian prisoners suspected of assisting a terrorist who had killed two of the soldiers’ comrades in a shooting attack the month before.
Three of the five soldiers were sentenced to six and a half months in prison, one was sentenced to five and a half months and the fifth was sentenced to two months behind bars. All five were demoted in rank to private and put on probation.
Last December, two members of the battalion were dismissed from duty after they fought with a group of Border Police officers who had arrested civilian friends of theirs for throwing rocks at Palestinian homes in Ramallah.
Also in December, the Military Police launched an investigation into the actions of Netzah Yehuda soldiers who shot dead an East Jerusalem man they said tried to ram them with his car at a West Bank checkpoint. An initial investigation into the incident found that no such ramming attempt had occurred.
In 2016, a soldier from the battalion was sentenced to 21 days in military prison for taking part in what was called the “hate wedding,” in which extremists celebrated the murder of a Palestinian toddler several months earlier.
The battalion was created so that ultra-Orthodox and other religious soldiers can serve without feeling they are compromising their beliefs. The soldiers do not interact with female troops to the same extent as other servicemen and are given additional time for prayer and religious study.