Israel arrests 20 Palestinians over fracas with hiking settlers

Qusra residents suspected of throwing rocks at Israeli children trekking through the area last week, resulting in clash that left one Palestinian killed

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Israeli security forces on Thursday arrested 20 residents of the Palestinian village of Qusra in connection to a scuffle with a group of hiking settlers a week earlier, the army said.

Last Thursday, approximately two dozen Israeli children and two armed escorts were hiking outside the village, when the army said local residents started pelting them with stones. In response, one of the guards opened fire, killing a Palestinian, 48-year-old Mahmoud Za’al Odeh.

As more Qusra residents arrived, many of the hikers hid in a nearby cave, but a group of Palestinians blocked their exit and allegedly pepper-sprayed them and stole some of their belongings, including a gun from one of the armed escorts, which was later returned.

Most of the people arrested in the pre-dawn raids are suspected of being directly involved in the attack or in the subsequent violent demonstrations and clashes that took place in the following days.

A few were also arrested for “incitement,” an army spokesperson said.

Protesters carry a Palestinian injured in clashes with IDF soldiers at the entrance to the northern West Bank village of Qusra on December 4, 2017 (AFP Photo/Jaafar Ashtiyeh)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman praised the security forces for the operation, saying they would “continue to act so every citizen can safely hike anywhere in the land of Israel.”

The joint operation in Qusra was conducted by the Israel Defense Forces, Israel Police, Shin Bet security service and the Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories office, which acts as a liaison with Palestinians.

In addition to the arrests, the army also “succeeded in locating and retrieving the personal belongings of the hikers that were taken during the incident,” the army spokesperson said.

The suspects were handed over to the Israel Police for questioning.

Tensions between settlers and Palestinians have ramped up in the wake of the incident. On Monday, dozens of Qusra residents rolled burning tires and a boulder at Israeli troops as a group of far-right Israeli activists staged a demonstration outside the village in response to the attack on the hiking children.

Settlers plan to return to the cave Friday for what they say is a bar mitzvah celebration, in a move that may spark renewed clashes.

Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces following riots between Palestinians and a group of settlers traveling in the northern West Bank, on November 30, 2017. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

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.

Palestinians carry the body of Mahmoud Ouda during his funeral in the West Bank village of Qusra, near the West Bank city of Nablus on December 2, 2017. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

The army’s initial investigation contradicted accounts by local human rights activists, who said the rock-throwing Palestinian mob only arrived after the shooting of Odeh, who they said was working in his field.

On Friday, 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 his arm, 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)

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, including 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.

Jacob Magid and Dov Lieber contributed to this report.

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