Otzma Yehudit party chair Itamar Ben Gvir, who is expected to be appointed police minister in the next government, suggested Saturday that left-wing activists were to blame after they were physically assaulted and taunted by soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron.
Ben Gvir, who is to be given the newly created position of national security minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s prospective government — an expanded public security minister role — called on police to investigate whether the activists had provoked the troops.
The remarks came after the Israel Defense Forces on Friday suspended two soldiers over their behavior, in the latest incident involving the Givati infantry brigade in the flashpoint city.
“I know these extreme leftists who come to Hebron well. They abuse soldiers, insult them, curse them, and many times they also attack them,” Ben Gvir claimed in a statement. “I call on police to investigate if, in this case, the extreme leftists didn’t provoke soldiers and hurt them first so that the photos of the incident would be falsified.”
While he said there was “no room for harming extreme leftists on the basis of their opinions,” Ben Gvir charged that activists often only document parts of their confrontations with troops. “And the moment it turns out the extreme leftists hurt the soldiers and attacked them, they should be arrested immediately and stand trial.”
Speaking to Channel 12’s “Meet the Press” on Saturday evening, the far-right legislator also said he’d demand clarifications from the military on the soldiers’ suspension once a government is formed.
In footage shared by Breaking the Silence, a non-governmental organization that collects and publicizes mostly anonymous testimony by former Israeli combat soldiers about alleged human rights violations against Palestinians, one soldier can be seen tackling an activist to the ground and punching him in the face, seemingly without provocation.
In a separate video from the scene, a soldier from the same squad was seen confronting an activist and boasting that “Ben Gvir is going to sort things out in this place” and “that’s it, you guys have lost… the party’s over.”
On Saturday, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi released a statement lambasting soldiers’ conduct during the incident and in other recent cases involving the misuse of force by soldiers against both Israelis and Palestinians, emphasizing that troops were not permitted to use force without cause.
“Incidents such as these tarnish the unit in which the soldier serves, the IDF and the State of Israel,” he said in a letter to troops.
“I am aware of the complicated reality you operate in and understand the challenges you deal with,” he said, but added that part of soldiers’ role was finding the balance between the use of force and restraint.
He said soldiers’ use of force and political comments violated the military’s code of conduct.
“The IDF derives its strength from being a professional, mission-orientated, moral, and nationally responsible army. The tasks before us are many, and IDF units act in both a professional and ethical manner and are required to root out any manifestation of unethical or unstately behavior.”
Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on Saturday that the army’s strict code of conduct and values are the “cornerstone” of its mission and were crucial to the country’s security.
“I trust that commanders will take care of any anomaly and prevent the entry of politics into the IDF and operational considerations. We must not allow division and internal arguments of the nation to enter the IDF,” he said.
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The group of activists had traveled to Hebron to meet with local Palestinian families as an act of solidarity after Israelis visiting the city in an annual pilgrimage initiated clashes with Palestinians last week.
In the footage, troops were seen attempting to detain a man, before one solider knocked him to the ground and punched him. Another soldier was heard shouting at the other activists: “Get the fuck out of here.”
The assaulted man was subsequently interrogated by Israeli police for allegedly assaulting a soldier and preventing him from carrying out his duties, his lawyer told the Ynet news site, adding that his client was still being held, despite his injuries. Two other activists were also detained briefly for unclear reasons, the lawyer said. Footage from the scene did not show an assault on the part of the activists.
The soldier was wearing a patch velcroed to the back of his military vest that read, “One shot. One kill. No remorse. I decide.” Patches other than those showing the logo of a military unit or an Israeli flag are against military regulations.
The IDF in a statement said the incidents would be investigated by the commander of the Central Command, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs.
Friday’s incident marked the third violent incident involving troops from the Givati Brigade in Hebron in recent weeks.
Last week the IDF suspended a soldier after he cursed a Breaking the Silence activist. “You’re a traitor to the country and you’re a son of a whore, son of a bitch. I wish you get cancer all over your body,” the soldier said.
Another three troops of the brigade were suspended last month over an alleged assault on a Palestinian man. That case was being investigated by the Military Police and was also condemned by Kohavi.
Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.