Palestinian shot in clashes as settlers march outside Qusra

Far-right Israeli activists return to scene of last week’s deadly incident; army had declared area a ‘closed military zone’

Renewed clashes broke out between settlers and Palestinians in the northern West Bank on Monday after a group of Israelis led by a far-right activist returned to the scene of last week’s deadly clash outside the Palestinian village of Qusra.

An army spokesperson said soldiers on the scene were working to drive back both the approximately 50 Palestinians, who were burning tires and rolling boulders at security forces, and the few dozen Israeli activists who entered the area, despite the fact that the area had been declared a “closed military zone.”

One Palestinian man was shot and critically wounded under unclear circumstances, a spokesperson for the Rabbis for Human Rights organization said. According to the Red Crescent ambulance service, the unnamed Palestinian was being taken to a hospital in Nablus for treatment.

The army said it was aware of the reports of an injured Palestinian and was investigating the circumstances of the shooting.

Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right activists and an attorney representing Otzma Yehudit, the group that organized the march, told The Times of Israel the bullet that wounded the Palestinian was fired by Israeli security forces. “Seeing as how the Palestinians rolled massive boulders at the soldiers, the incident should have ended with dozens of bullets fired rather than just one”

There were no immediate reports of Israeli injuries.

On Sunday, Ben-Gvir announced he was leading a group back to the area outside Qusra where on Thursday a few dozen hiking children and their armed escorts were pelted with stones and forced to take cover in a cave, where they were reportedly pepper-sprayed, according to an Israel Defense Forces preliminary investigation.

During those clashes, one of the escorts shot a Palestinian, 48-year-old Mahmoud Za’al Odeh, killing him, in what the settler said was self-defense. Police later questioned him and the other parent leading the trip on suspicions of negligent manslaughter.

“We’ll display Jewish presence in the area and make it clear that this area is now a preferred spot for hikes,” Ben-Gvir said.

The ultra-nationalist Otzma Yehudit frequently carries out demonstrations urging a violent Israeli response to Palestinian attacks.

Following the Sunday night announcement, the army declared the area a “closed military zone,” meaning entrance to it is only possible with special prior approval, an IDF spokesperson said.

Another army official said security forces were working to force the Israelis to exit the area, though video footage from the scene showed soldiers standing next to settlers and not appearing to tell them to leave.

Palestinian men throw stones toward Israeli soldiers and settlers at the entrance to the northern West Bank village of Qusra on December 4, 2017 (AFP Photo/Jaafar Ashtiyeh)

Otzma Yehudit leader Michael Ben Ari dismissed the notion that his group’s demonstration required IDF approval.

“In order to walk our land, we do not need any permits,” he said, claiming that such expectations were what led to the killing of an IDF soldier last week outside an Arad bus station. Baruch Marzel, another leader of the group, said he believed that the Palestinians “got the hint” following Monday’s clashes.

On Friday, the army presented its initial investigation into the clashes the day before, determining that Palestinians threw rocks at the hiking children before the armed settler opened fire.

The IDF said the hikers 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 spokesperson 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 the West Bank’s Area C, which is under full Israeli control.

The army’s initial investigation contradicted accounts by local human rights activists, who said the slain Palestinian was working in his field when he was shot, and the rock-throwing Palestinian mob only arrived at the scene later.

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 negligent manslaughter.

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.”

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.

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

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 gave an on-camera statement that was released by the Samaria Regional Council, saying that their belongings were also stolen. He 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, but was eventually retrieved and returned.

Hours after the clash, a group of Israeli settlers tried to enter Qusra, throwing rocks at residents and buildings. Palestinians threw rocks and Molotov cocktails back at the Israelis. IDF troops were called to the scene and drove back the two sides with 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, the incursions would result in the settlers being attacked with rocks, but in others they were detained by local Palestinians and handed over to Israeli security forces.

Dov Lieber contributed to this report.

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