Senior IDF officer tells Yitzhar residents: Soldiers are ‘scared’ to serve here

But Samaria Brigade commander appears to draw equivalence between violence of extremist youth and aggressive response by frustrated soldiers

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Masked Israeli settlers from Yitzhar and soldiers watch after Palestinian fields were set on fire in the village of Asira al-Qiblyia on June 2, 2010. (Wagdi Ashtiyeh/Flash90)
Masked Israeli settlers from Yitzhar and soldiers watch after Palestinian fields were set on fire in the village of Asira al-Qiblyia on June 2, 2010. (Wagdi Ashtiyeh/Flash90)

A senior IDF officer in the West Bank reportedly told residents of the Yitzhar settlement that soldiers are “scared” of being dispatched to the northern West Bank hilltop community where residents have clashed with troops and Palestinians repeatedly in recent months.

Samaria Regional Brigade Commander Sagiv Dahan made the remark in a Saturday night meeting with Yitzhar locals held amid lingering tensions between them and security forces, the Kan public broadcaster reported on Tuesday.

“The thing that most disturbs me is that the soldiers are scared [to be dispatched in the area.]… It is unacceptable that a soldier is concerned about his well-being when walking around Yitzhar,” Kan quoted Dahan as having said.

“The soldiers are totally broken. They enlisted for a particular goal and suddenly they find themselves here where residents film them and throw stones at them.”

IDF Samaria Regional Brigade Commander Sagiv Dahan. (Israel Defense Forces)

However, the brigade commander appeared to subsequently draw an equivalence between the extremist residents of Yitzhar, as well as the surrounding outposts, and the soldiers dispatched to protect them, who have been accused on several occasions of using excessive force against the locals.

Referring to the Border Police battalion dispatched to the area in October in light of the repeated instances of violence by Yitzhar area residents, Dahan said, “Let me be clear, they aren’t free of wrongdoing either. They were broken and this led them to make mistakes and beat [civilians]. I will not accept that a soldier will raise a hand against anyone here in Yitzhar. From my standpoint, that is a disaster.”

On Sunday, a security official told The Times of Israel that the defense establishment was doing everything in its power to curb such violence and bring the perpetrators to justice. However, she also directed criticism at police and the Israeli justice system, which she claimed were making those efforts more difficult.

The security official pointed out that 2019 saw a significant drop in the number of what was referred to as “violent incidents” perpetrated by Israelis against Palestinians and security forces: from 378 in 2018 to 256. The number of “price tag” attacks, in which Israelis specifically entered Palestinian villages, vandalized property and sprayed Hebrew hate slogans, was unchanged, totaling 50 for the second consecutive year, according to defense establishment figures.

Illustrative: Residents of the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar clash with security forces during a demolition of an illegal structure on June 25, 2017. (Screen capture: YouTube)

But the attacks on Palestinian property were growing increasingly brazen, the official said.

“Where before we might have seen a price tag attack in which the perpetrators vandalized 20 cars, now there are some incidents where 160 cars are vandalized,” she explained. “They’re not afraid. They stay in what theoretically is a hostile village for hours before leaving.”

The defense establishment has also identified a spike in the degree of violent attacks, including a November incident in which perpetrators hurled rocks at an oncoming Palestinian taxi driver, as well as various arson attacks targeting Palestinian cars and even a Border Police tent. “We consider these to be terror attacks in every sense of the word. The perpetrators don’t know if there is anyone inside when they set the fire,” the security official said.

The official pointed to recent developments surrounding the illegal Kumi Ori outpost neighborhood of Yitzhar as providing a “tailwind” for an increase in attacks on Palestinians and Israeli security forces in recent months.

The Israel Defense Forces declared the outpost a closed military zone in October after a number of young settlers living there were involved in a string of violent attacks on Palestinians and security forces. Among the residents most known to the Shin Bet security service is 21-year-old Neria Zarog, a “violent extremist” who has inspired attacks against Palestinians and Israeli forces alike, according to the security official.

Neria Zarog, resident of the Jewish settlement of Itzhar, is brought to the Petah Tikvah Magistrate’s court after being arrested for violating a restraining order and barricading himself in an illegal house near the settlement in the West Bank, on November 11, 2019. (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)

In September, IDF Central Command Head Nadav Padan signed an administrative order barring Zarog from Kumi Ori and the northern West Bank. The father of three openly violated the directive, refusing to leave his home, but police didn’t arrest him until two months later. Zarog was held for several days as he refused to agree to the terms of his release, before eventually being let go unconditionally.

“He’s seen as a hero who made a mockery of the defense establishment,” the security official said.

On that issue, the official said, police deserved blame for taking so long to arrest Zarog. “The evidence we had against him expired by the time he was brought in,” she added, refusing to elaborate.

The official also criticized the courts for their conduct with Zarog and other cases in which they charge defendants with minor crimes of vandalism and allow them to return home immediately.

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