Israeli settlers attacked Israeli troops who were attempting to break up a violent demonstration they were holding near Nablus amid high tensions in the West Bank, the military said early Thursday.
Four soldiers, including the commanding officer of the 202nd Paratrooper Battalion, were hit with pepper spray from the settlers in two locations during the overnight fighting, the IDF said.
The incident caused outrage across the political spectrum, with Prime Minister Yair Lapid labeling the attackers “dangerous criminals” and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu saying he “fully condemns the violence” and calling for the rioters to be brought to justice.
Israel Police said Thursday morning that a suspect in his 20s had been arrested in connection with the clash as he sat in one of the vehicles that the settlers used to flee the scene.
Law enforcement officials said the suspect, a resident of a West Bank settlement, is also an IDF soldier.
Soldiers had been deployed to an area near the Palestinian town of Huwara to break up a group of dozens of settlers throwing stones at passing Palestinian vehicles, the army said.
תיעוד: מתנחלים תוקפים לוחמים מגדוד 202 של הצנחנים בחווארה בשומרון pic.twitter.com/UxyQHu56a1
— איתי בלומנטל Itay Blumental (@ItayBlumental) October 20, 2022
The soldiers “were attacked violently, including with pepper spray from several settlers toward the troops,” the IDF said in a statement. “As a result, the commander of the unit was injured along with another soldier.”
The extent of the injuries was not detailed and it was not immediately clear if any Palestinians were hurt in the stone-throwing. There was no immediate comment from the authorities on any arrests.
Later, two more soldiers were pepper-sprayed by settlers near Tapuah Junction, south of Huwara.
In a statement, the military called the settlers involved in violence “criminal” and called for them to face justice, but avoided much of the harsher language usually used to refer to Palestinian stone-throwers.
“Harm against IDF soldiers by settlers, who are protected by them, is wrongful behavior which we have an obligation to denounce and to work against vociferously,” the IDF said.
IDF chief Aviv Kohavi on Thursday morning said it was “unacceptable” that Israeli troops were assaulted by settlers.
“This is a very serious incident, embodying shameful and disgraceful criminal behavior, which requires swift and strict justice,” Kohavi said. “I support the important activity of IDF soldiers, who work around the clock to protect the residents of Israel. It is unacceptable that IDF soldiers who defend diligently and devotedly will be violently attacked by settlers.”
Lapid said that “the Jewish rioters who violently attacked the IDF soldiers in Huwara last night are dangerous criminals who must be denounced and punished without hesitation and with all severity.”
“They endanger the lives of our soldiers and they harm the State of Israel,” he tweeted. “I give my support to the combat forces in the field and the paratroopers’ battalion commander and their soldiers who are there to protect the people of Israel.”
In a Channel 12 interview, Lapid said that what was particularly dangerous was that these “violent, dangerous” attackers “receive support from part of the Israeli political spectrum… I also saw that [Otzma Yehudit leader MK Itamar] Ben Gvir, whose emissaries they ultimatey are, immediately attacked [Defense Minister] Benny Gantz. You attack him because thugs are going around attacking our soldiers?”
Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, who oversees police, denounced the settlers and alleged that their behavior was tantamount to terrorism.
“The violence perpetrated tonight by rioting gangs of settlers against IDF soldiers and against Palestinians in the Huwara and Tapuah area — is an act of terrorism in every way,” he tweeted.
Their actions, he wrote, are “a moral and ethical disgrace of the highest order.” He vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked called the clash “a disgraceful incident” that she completely condemns.
“Those people do not represent West Bank settlers,” she tweeted, and urged swift justice for those who perpetrate violence against security forces.
Netanyahu lamented “attempts to besmirch the larger settler public because of the wrongful acts of a few individuals. The clear majority of settlers respect the law.”
MK Bezalel Smortich, leader of far-right pro-settler Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit political alliance, tweeted that “One does not raise a hand against IDF soldiers. Period.”
Ben Gvir, his No. 2 in the party, accused the defense minister of being responsible for the events.
In a statement, Ben Gvir said that “violence against IDF soldiers is always wrong, and has no place in any situation, ever — and I strongly condemn it.”
But Ben Gvir, who is riding a wave of popularity from pro-settlement right-wing activists ahead of next month’s election, claimed that the settlers in Huwara were responding after Israeli vehicles had been stoned in the town by Palestinians, and criticized the IDF for not mentioning that in its statement about the events.
“This is further testimony to the politicization that Gantz is trying to introduce to the IDF,” Ben Gvir said, and accused the defense minister of “tying the hands of IDF soldiers” in the fight against terrorism while “abandoning the security of the country.”
“The responsibility rests on his shoulders,” he wrote.
The mayor of the West Bank settlement of Efrat also condemned the assault.
“Not only did they cross a red line, but they endanger the entire settlement [enterprise] by making security forces do their job less well for our security and by giving more excuses to the opponents of the settlements to tarnish our reputation,” Oded Revivi said on Twitter.
“Whoever acts violently loses,” he added.
Tensions in Huwara and the surrounding area have ratcheted up in recent weeks, with Israel’s military placing a cordon around Nablus to crack down on a loosely-organized terror group known as Lion’s Den, which has claimed near-nightly attacks on troops and civilians.
Huwara sits on a main road used by both settlers and Palestinians, and there have been frequent rock-throwing attacks against Israeli cars in the area.
On Thursday last week, a group of Jewish settlers rampaged through Huwara, attacking shops and residents with stones and iron bars, according to Palestinian reports and amateur video from the scene. Over 40 Palestinians were reported wounded.
Footage from the scene showed young settlers brandishing clubs as they ran through the streets and approached shopkeepers. At one point, a shopkeeper with his back against a wall swung a stick at a group of youths, while a second Palestinian threw a stone at them. Soldiers fired into the air and stood next to a group of settlers, apparently trying to keep the groups separated.
תיעוד של התקפת המתנחלים בחווארה היום (צילום: אורן זיו) pic.twitter.com/BzeSvVVs2z
— שיחה מקומית (@mekomit) October 13, 2022
The IDF was also probing an incident where a soldier opened fire at Palestinian homes in Huwara after his car was damaged in a rock attack on Friday.
The area is home to a number of hardline settlements, whose residents often intimidate Palestinians and vandalize their property. Settlers have also accused the military of not doing enough to protect them.
On Wednesday, settlers fought with Palestinians and Israeli activists during the annual olive harvest in the southern West Bank.
Masked settlers hurled stones and assaulted volunteers and Palestinians harvesting olives, footage showed, while a settlement group said the Palestinians had approached a settlement, issued threats and injured three residents in a deliberate provocation.
An anti-terror offensive launched earlier this year and focused on the northern West Bank cities of Nablus and Jenin has netted more than 2,000 arrests in near-nightly raids.
It has also left over 100 Palestinians dead, many of them while carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.