Army: Hiking settlers were attacked first; soldiers took 20 minutes to find them

Military says group didn’t coordinate trip that resulted in clash in which Palestinian killed, forbids future visits to the area without accompaniment

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative image of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank village of Qusra near the city of Nablus, on August 9, 2016. (Flash90)
Illustrative image of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank village of Qusra near the city of Nablus, on August 9, 2016. (Flash90)

Following an initial investigation, the army determined on Friday that settlers were attacked first by Palestinians throwing rocks during a hike outside the village of Qusra and only then did they open fire at them, killing a Palestinian man.

In a statement, the army said there was an approximately 20-minute delay in response by soldiers due to difficulties in locating the scene of the clash. A small contingent arrived after 20 minutes and additional forces were then called to assist, the army noted.

The Israel Defense Forces said the hikers, a few dozen children and two armed adult escorts did not coordinate their trip ahead of time or get permission from the military to enter the area, as required by protocol.

Future visits to the area would only be possible with military accompaniment, the army said.

“The IDF has a system of coordinating trips that allows all hikers to be kept safe while in an area that requires security preparedness,” the military said in a statement.

However, a spokespersons for the settlers said the army “was throwing sand in the eyes of the public,” and denied that there was any need to coordinate trips in Area C, areas under full Israeli control.

Nevertheless, the spokesperson said, the trip had been coordinated and an email had been sent to the IDF regional headquarters.

The initial investigation was conducted by the head of the Samaria Regional Brigade, Col. Gilad Amit, who is responsible for protecting the area.

The army said it was looking into reports that a second Palestinian was injured by Israeli gunfire during the clash in the northern West Bank. He was said to have been shot in the leg and taken to a Nablus hospital for treatment.

“IDF troops will continue to operate in order to ensure the safety of residents of the area, and to allow safe hiking in the Judea, Samara and Jordan Valley,” the army said, using the biblical terms for the regions of the West Bank.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman attends a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset on March 6, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Earlier on Friday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said the two Israeli settlers who opened fire at the group of Palestinians were acting in “self-defense,” even as police questioned them on suspicions of manslaughter.

Police said the men are suspected of negligent manslaughter. A spokesperson stressed that this was only an initial suspicion. They were later released from police custody.

In addition, at least one of the men’s guns was confiscated, the police official said.

Liberman appeared to have reached his own conclusions, declaring on Twitter that the Palestinians were trying to “lynch” the children and that “the use of a weapon for self-defense is a moral value that is defended by every democracy.”

“My thanks and recognition to the armed escort who saved the hikers from a clear and present danger to their lives,” he said.

On Thursday, the two men were escorting the group of several dozen youths on a tour of the area as part of the celebrations for a bar mitzvah. They said that as they hiked past the village of Qusra, dozens of residents starting throwing rocks at them.

IDF troops tend to Mahmoud Za’al Odeh after he was shot by an Israeli settler outside of the West Bank village of Qusra on November 30, 2017. (Courtesy)

One of the men, who was armed with an M-16 assault rifle, opened fire in what he said was self-defense, shooting dead a Palestinian man, 48-year-old Mahmoud Za’al Odeh.

According to local human rights activists, the slain Palestinian was working in his field when he was shot, and the rock-throwing Palestinian mob only arrived at the scene later.

One of the Israeli escorts suffered a light head wound in the incident after he was hit with a rock. The other sustained an injury to one of his arms, according to the Magen David Adom ambulance service. They were both taken to Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva.

A spokesperson for the Yitzhar settlement, the home of several of the children on the trip, said it didn’t matter if the trip was coordinated with the army or not. “It’s not a relevant question,” he said, when asked.

The Samaria Regional Council said the hikers did not need to coordinate with the army, since it wasn’t a school trip.

The two settlers’ lawyer denounced the police investigation as “outrageous.”

Israeli settlers and Palestinians clash in the northern West Bank on November 30, 2017. (courtesy)

“The children were saved only by the resourcefulness of these citizens, who rescued them from certain death,” said attorney Adi Keidar, of the far-right Honenu legal assistance organization.

The parents of the children who were on the hiking trip similarly denounced the police’s questioning of the armed escorts. “It is a disgrace, a disgrace. I can only hug my son this morning because of these people,” one mother said.

During the clash, some of young hikers holed up in a nearby cave, but their exit was blocked by a group of Palestinians. One of the children who was in the cave said they were pepper-sprayed and that the Palestinians threatened them and took some of their belongings.

The child, who gave an on-camera statement that was released by the Samaria Regional Council, added that a second group of Palestinians arrived at the entrance of the cave and helped drive back the initial group that was preventing their escape, until the army arrived.

The second escort’s handgun was stolen by a Palestinian man. After initially denying that a gun had been taken, the army later acknowledged that it had been stolen, but was eventually retrieved and returned to the settler.

According to Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian Authority official who monitors settlement activity in the northern West Bank, Israeli soldiers took Odeh’s body into custody as it was being taken to a hospital in the city of Nablus.

Hours after the clash, a group of Israeli settlers tried to enter Qusra, throwing rocks at residents and buildings. The Palestinians threw rocks and Molotov cocktails back at the Israelis. IDF troops were called to the scene and drove back the two sides with less lethal riot dispersal gear, like tear gas.

In that clash, one soldier was lightly wounded by a Molotov cocktail thrown by a Palestinian, the army said.

In the past several years, there have been multiple cases of Israeli settlers, including armed off-duty soldiers, from the nearby illegal Esh Kodesh outpost trying to enter Qusra.

In some cases, this results in the settlers being attacked with rocks, but in others they are detained by local Palestinians and handed over to Israeli security forces.

Dov Lieber contributed to this report.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed