Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Friday said two Israeli settlers who opened fire at a group of Palestinians who were allegedly attacking the group of children they were leading on a hike near the village of Qusra in the northern West Bank 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 is 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.
One of the men, who was armed with an M-16 assault rifle, opened fire in what he said was self-defense, shooting 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 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 full day after the incident, the army would still not say definitively if the Israelis had coordinated their hike with the military, as is generally done in the West Bank in order to prevent violent clashes like the ones that transpired Thursday.
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.”
“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 thanks to 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 the 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.
Dov Lieber contributed to this report.