The leader of the dissident `hilltop youth' in the West Bank was acquitted yesterday of beating up a Palestinian farmer and damaging his tractor.

Ran Avraham, known as Avri Ran, a former IDF colonel, and three other settlers were charged in Kfar Saba's Magistrate's Court with attacking two Palestinians - a shepherd and a farmer who was ploughing his land - at a clover field on March 20.

Ran, who claims the field belongs to him, asked one of the Palestinians to sit, but he fled. Two other defendants, Victor Ladizansky and Elad Ziv, chased him until he fell, and then kicked him all over his body, the prosecution said.

Ran was charged with punching the farmer with his fists and ripping the electric wires in his tractor.

The defendants and the Palestinians have been embroiled in violent clashes over disputed land, including the clover field.

Magistrate Nava Bechor ruled that she could not establish Ran's claim to the land. However, she acquitted him and two other defendants - Ziv and Yisachar Mendel - who were involved in the incident, stating that the Palestinians' testimony was unreliable and that they contradicted themselves.

She accepted the argument of Ran's attorney, Ben Zion Kebler, that there was no evidence that the tractor was damaged. He said Ran did not touch Abu Schhada, and that the defendants did not kick him.

Summing up the plaintiffs' testimonies, Bechor said they exaggerated in court and contradicted their statements to the police.

She blasted the police for failing to document the defendants' and plaintiffs' spontaneous reactions or examine the ownership of the land.

Ran had been in custody for these charges close to five months. When questioned by the police he gave a general statement, saying he had attacked the plaintiffs. But in court he said this statement was false.

Ran, who runs an organic farm in the West Bank, said he assumed full responsibility because he wanted the other defendants to be released to run the farm, otherwise it would have had to close down. The judge said she believed him.

Although his statement to the police was laconic and did not correspond to the other defendants' testimonies, Bechor said his testimony gave the impression of being reliable and coherent, and provided a reasonable explanation for giving the police a false statement."