Settlers, with kids, return to spot of deadly clash to complete bar mitzvah hike

One father asks children to stand exactly where they were last week when blocked in a cave by Palestinians from Qusra village

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

(From R-L) Yesha chairman Hananel Dorani, Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan, and Samaria Rabbi Elyakim Levanon pose for a photo on December 8, 2017, with children in the same cave where they were attacked last week during clashes with Palestinians from Qusra. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
(From R-L) Yesha chairman Hananel Dorani, Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan, and Samaria Rabbi Elyakim Levanon pose for a photo on December 8, 2017, with children in the same cave where they were attacked last week during clashes with Palestinians from Qusra. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

QUSRA, West Bank — A  group settlers returned with their children to a hilltop outside the village of Qusra on Friday to complete a “bar mitzvah” hike that was cut short last week due to deadly clashes with local Palestinians.

“We came here today to strengthen Elitzur (Libman, the bar mitzvah boy) and his friends. We will continue traveling throughout our land without any fear,” said Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan, who helped organize the trip.

Joining Dagan and the children were Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely and over 200 settlers from neighboring communities.

Dozens of Israeli security forces also secured the event, which the army confirmed had been coordinated with it in advance.

Last Thursday, a group of several dozen youths — chaperoned by a pair of fathers — embarked on a tour of the northern West Bank to celebrate the bar mitzvah of Elitzur Libman. As they hiked past the village of Qusra, they said that dozens of Palestinian residents began throwing rocks at them. One of the armed chaperones opened fire, killing 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 the second escort, which was later returned.

Just over a week after the fatal shooting, Dagan led the children back to the cave where they were holed up.

The Samaria Regional Council chairman said the purpose was to “rectify the experience for the children,” but the youngsters were also asked to retell last week’s incident for reporters and were joined by their parents for a photo-op.

As the parents huddled the children into the cave for the photographers, one father asked them to position themselves in the exact same places they were last week. Another mother asked them to tell the reporters present “how scary the incident was.”

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The parents asked the bar mitzvah boy, Elitzur, to share what had happened, but he blushed and declined to speak. Several of the children began getting antsy in the crowded space, but the Samaria Regional Council officials who organizers begged them to stay inside a little longer so Dagan and Samaria Rabbi Elyakim Levanon could address the group.

As the photo-op ended, a large group of the men present began singing songs praising God and danced together in a circle.

The celebration was followed by a speech from Elitzur Libman, who read from a sheet of prepared remarks. “I do not like being here, but it also gives me strength,” began the 13-year-old. “My bar mitzvah party was not a simple experience. I’m glad that so many people came to strengthen us and allow me to celebrate again… We will leave here strong,” he concluded, before quickly passing off the microphone to the next speaker.

“I came her today to strengthen the children of Samaria, and to send a clear message: They (the Palestinians) will not frighten us, we will continue,” Hotovely told a cheering crowd.

“It’s very moving but also difficult to return here, thinking about the terrifying things that my son and the other children had to endure at this very spot,” said Elitzur’s mother, Racheli Libman.

Also participating in the hike were a group of roughly 50 young men from the Elon Moreh Yeshiva. “We are here to show the Arabs that we are not scared and will continue walking the paths of our forefathers,” said one of the students, making no mention of the bar mitzvah boy or his peers.

On Thursday, Israeli security forces arrested 20 Qusra residents in connection to the November 30 incident.

In its initial investigation into the clashes, the IDF determined that Palestinians threw rocks at the hiking children before the armed settler opened fire.

Israeli settlers and Palestinians clash in the northern West Bank on November 30, 2017. (courtesy)

However, the army 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 IDF said.

The preliminary conclusions contradicted accounts by local human rights activists, who said the rock-throwing Palestinian mob only arrived after the fatal shooting of the Palestinian man, who they said was working in his field.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman declared last week that the two Israeli chaperones who opened fire at the group of Palestinians were acting in “self-defense,” despite the police questioning them on suspicions of negligent manslaughter.

The investigation into the incident is ongoing.

(From L-R) Yesha Council chairman Hananel Dorani, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (back row), Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, Elitzur Libman and Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan pose for a photo outside the West Bank village of Qusra on December 8, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Internal settler divisions continue

The event also exposed a deep divide in the Migdalim settlement — where Elitzur and several of his friends on the trip are from — between its secular founders and a new group or religious residents that moved to the community several years ago.

In a Facebook post published on a page titled “Saving Migdalim,” a group that has identified itself as the secular builders of the settlement blasted the parent escorts as part of a larger group of “religious extremists” that recently moved to their community without permission and without going through the normal vetting process.

Speaking with The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity due to fear of retribution from his neighbors, one of the authors of the Facebook post said his group condemned the escort’s decision to take the children through Qusra “in a provocative manner and without permission from the army.”

A Samaria Regional Council spokesman emphatically rejected the claim that the children had hiked through the Palestinian village.

As Friday’s celebration concluded, a secular Migdalim resident, Liron Alon, began harassing Dagan over the latter’s alleged discrimination against non-religious settlers.

A secular resident of Migdalim (R) confronts Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan following the completion of a bar mitzvah hike outside the West Bank village of Qusra on December 8, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Dagan attempted to calm Alon, but the resident continued shouting at him.

Reflecting on the incident shortly after, Dagan dismissed the man’s accusations. “Half of my residents are secular. It would be absurd to think that I’m ignoring them,” he said.

The regional council chairman added that it was difficult to take Alon seriously after he burned a pair of phylacteries outside the Migdalim synagogue on the Yom Kippur holiday.

“I have nothing against religious people, but I totally reject the way they have taken over our community,” Alon told The Times of Israel. “What they are doing with these kids is wrong as well.”

As he continued shouting, a group of the children congregated around him and began to snicker.

“Kids, don’t pay attention to him,” Dagan said calmly, as he tried to disperse the crowd to avoid making a larger scene.

Safety first

Friday’s return hike took place as some 3,000 Palestinians held demonstrations and clashed with Israeli security forces at some 30 locations across the West Bank and Gaza Strip in a show of anger over US President Donald Trump’s declared recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Palestinians clash with Israeli troops during a protest against US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Friday, Dec. 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Nasser Shiyoukhi)

Ariel said Trump’s move “strengthened the settlers who came to show their support for Elitzur.”

The agriculture minister dismissed the notion that the organizers were placing the children in unnecessary danger by returning them to the spot of last week’s attack during a time of broader tension. “There’s a strong army here protecting us and we feel as safe as ever,” he said.

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