The Israel Defense Forces on Sunday corrected itself after accusing left-wing activists and Palestinians of “violently attacking and throwing stones” at troops in the South Hebron Hills area of the West Bank on Friday.
In a new statement, the IDF admitted that an activist — who is also an off-duty soldier — who was detained was actually throwing stones near a herd of sheep to direct them out of the area, as the activists themselves told The Times of Israel.
The two activists involved strongly denied the IDF’s initial claims that they had attacked troops alongside Palestinians near the illegal West Bank outpost of Avigayil, and said they were only assisting a Palestinian shepherd.
The incident received harsh condemnation from IDF chief Aviv Kohavi and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, despite the conflicting accounts and footage showing the suspect seemingly being arrested without resisting.
Still, the IDF said that the stones thrown by the activist to direct the sheep “consequently were also in the direction of the military force at the scene.”
One of the soldiers filed a complaint with the police because he “felt threatened” by the stone-throwing, the military said.
סרטון המתעד את המעצר של פעיל השמאל בדרום הר חברון. התפרעות אין פה וגם לא רואים יידוי אבנים אלא אווירה רגועה למדי. לדברי פעיל שהיה במקום, הם הגיעו כדי ללוות רועי צאן, חיילים הכריזו על האיזור כשטח צבאי סגור > pic.twitter.com/3k7Vb7ieUG
— Hagar Shezaf (@hagar_shezaf) October 28, 2022
The detained activist was released Friday, after several hours of police questioning, and has been barred from the South Hebron Hills area for 15 days.
The military confirmed the activists’ account, saying troops demanded the pair and the Palestinian man leave a closed military zone. No violence was directed at troops as they began to leave the area.
But the IDF said the detained man did not respond to the troops’ request to leave the area, in addition to the stone-throwing, and was therefore arrested.
Gantz on Sunday also apologized for his condemnation on Friday. “In retrospect, an investigation into the matter found that there was indeed a refusal to obey orders and stone-throwing that was not aimed at forces — and that’s a good thing,” he said.
“I will continue to support the IDF soldiers and give them support in fulfilling their mission, but I regret the decisive declaration on the subject, in face of the facts on the ground,” Gantz said.
“I welcome the fact that the facts have been clarified,” he added.
The incident came a week after Israeli settlers and right-wing activists attacked IDF troops near Nablus, sparking widespread condemnation by officials across the political spectrum.
The suspects used pepper spray against a senior officer and three other soldiers who were attempting to stop them from hurling stones at Palestinians in the West Bank town of Huwara.
Two suspects were arrested following that violent incident, including an off-duty soldier who has since been released to house arrest.
Friday’s incident came following several clashes between Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank in recent weeks.
On Tuesday, masked Israeli settlers and Palestinians were seen hurling stones at each other, as a group of Palestinians was harvesting olives near the West Bank town of Turmus Aya.
The IDF said troops arrived at the scene to separate the sides.
The annual olive harvest season, when Palestinians go into groves on agricultural plots to collect the fruits, often sees an uptick in clashes, especially on plots near Israeli settlements or outposts.
Left-wing Israeli groups often send volunteers to help the harvest, protect Palestinians, and document crimes.