'We fly the flag of tolerance, equality and reciprocity'

Deadly Qusra clash exacerbates secular-religious divide at West Bank settlement

Some Migdalim residents say community is being taken over by a group of ‘religious extremists’ who try to provoke their Palestinian neighbors

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Entrance to Migdalim settlement. (Courtesy)
Entrance to Migdalim settlement. (Courtesy)

The deadly clash Thursday between a group of West Bank settlers on a bar mitzvah hike and Palestinians from the nearby village of Qusra has exposed a deep divide in the Migdalim settlement between its original secular residents and a new group they call “religious extremists.”

The main culprit, the secular critics charge, is the man who was acting as the leader and armed guard of the hike, who, according to the IDF’s initial investigation, opened fire and killed a Palestinian man after the Palestinians began throwing stones at them. Police are currently investigating him and a second escort on suspicion of negligent manslaughter; Defense Minister Liberman said Friday that the Palestinians were trying to “lynch” the Jewish group, and that the shots were fired in “self-defense.” Lawyers for the two men have denounced the police investigation as “outrageous.”

In a Facebook post published on a page titled “Saving Migdalim” — a group that has identified itself as the secular founders of the settlement that “live in peace with our Arab neighbors” — blasted the parent escort as part of a larger group of “religious extremists” that recently moved to their community without permission and without going through the normal vetting process.

“We fly the flag of tolerance, equality and reciprocity. This is how we have been and will continue to be in the future and we condemn the attempt to transform Migdalim from a peace-seeking community to one of warmongers,” they wrote on Facebook.

Speaking with The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity due to fear of retribution from his neighbors, one of the authors of the Facebook post said his group condemned the escort’s decision to take the children through Qusra “in a provocative manner and without permission from the army.”

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

On Thursday, two parents — one from Migdalim and one from Yitzhar — took a group of several dozen youths on a tour of the northern West Bank as part of the bar mitzvah celebrations for one of the children. The parent escort and Migdalim resident declined The Times of Israel’s repeated requests for comment and asked not to be named due to the ongoing investigation.

When the settlers arrived at an area near Qusra, south of Nablus, a group of Palestinian residents started throwing rocks at them, the army said. One of the armed parents on the hike — the Migdalim resident castigated in the Friday Facebook post — took out his handgun and fired into the mob, killing one of the Palestinians, 48-year-old Mahmoud Za’al Odeh, according to the IDF.

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

“Of course, we also condemn the lynch attempt,” the author of the post added, referring to the violence by the Palestinian stone throwers, in which two Israelis were hurt.

During the clash, some of the 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.

First responders tend to an injured man after Israeli settlers and Palestinians clash in the northern West Bank on November 30, 2017. (courtesy)

The author of the “Saving Migdalim” Facebook post said it had been approved by 40 other secular residents of the settlement before it was published. The community, which was founded in 1986,  is home to some 110 families in total, 30% of whom are secular, he said, adding that the ratio has changed radically over the past five years.

He clarified that the settlement’s secular families have nothing against the religious members of the community. “Our issue is with the takeover in the past decade that was led by [the parent escort] and others from the radical settlement of Yitzhar,” he said.

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On Friday, police questioned the shooter along with other parents on the trip on negligent manslaughter suspicions.

The settlers’ lawyer denounced the police investigation. “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.

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

Also on Friday, the IDF released a statement saying that the organizers had not coordinated their trip with the army, as is generally done in the West Bank in order to prevent violent clashes like the ones that transpired Thursday.

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

A spokesperson for the Yitzhar settlement, the home of the majority 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.

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)

A Samaria Regional Council spokeswoman said the hikers did not need to coordinate with the army, since it wasn’t a school trip. She also denied the claim that the children had entered the village.

The secular residents charged the organizers of the hike with being deliberately provocative with their Palestinian neighbors. The author of the Facebook post pointed to fresh clashes later Thursday when a number of religious Migdalim residents, along with a group of youth from Yitzhar, attempted to enter Qusra, allegedly to further provoke the Palestinians there.

According to the IDF, the second round of clashes between Israelis and Palestinians began after a group of settlers tried to enter Qusra. The army said security forces used riot-dispersal means to try to end the clashes and that one soldier was lightly hurt by a Molotov cocktail thrown by a Palestinian.

“These incidents damage not just our relationship with the surrounding Arab villages, but also our own security as well,” the Facebook post author said.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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