The Israel Defense Forces said it would open an investigation into an incident Friday in which six Israeli activists and at least two Palestinians were allegedly assaulted and injured by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank’s South Hebron Hills. Several other activists were detained briefly. The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said the activists had tried to block the entrance to the unauthorized settlement outpost of Avigayil, and that they had assaulted the soldiers there, allegations the activists deny.
The confrontation followed the arrival of dozens of Israelis from the anti-occupation group Combatants for Peace. They and the Palestinians accompanying them were bringing a water tank to isolated Palestinian communities near the outpost because the army has not allowed them to collect water in cisterns or take receipt of water tanks.
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When the activists approached the outpost, Israeli soldiers arrived, commanded by the deputy commander of an engineering battalion. The soldiers barred the group from proceeding with the water tank, after which the activists shouted slogans condemning the occupation. The soldiers pushed them and threw tear gas and stun grenades at them, the activists claim.
The deputy commander threw one of the activists, Tuly Flint, to the ground and placed his knee on the man’s head. The officer also shoved two other protesters. One, Michael Turkenitz, suffered unspecified injuries. The second, a 66-year-old man, was operated on at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital for injuries to his eye socket. He asked that his name not be published.
From two videos of the incident, it appears that he was trying to cross the road when the officer shoved him. “We were returning to our cars. In 10 minutes we would have reached them and been out of there. If he had touched my shoulder and told me to leave the road, I would have left. I wonder if he would have done this to his father,” the activist said.
He also refuted the army’s claim that the protesters blocked the road, pointing to the fact that “cars passed to the settlement and we didn’t cause any problems for them.”
In a statement, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said the officer’s conduct as reflected in the video was unbecoming to an IDF officer. “The incident is under investigation and conclusions will be drawn accordingly.”
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A Palestinian activist was injured in the abdomen by a tear gas grenade and an activist’s finger was broken after she was pushed. Another woman was hurt when her shirt caught on fire after being hit by a stun grenade.
The soldiers detained several of the demonstrators, drove them around the southern West Bank for four hours and left them in an army vehicle for another three hours near the police station in Hebron. The police then released them. Their release was not subject to any limitations.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said “a violent demonstration” had taken place and that an initial investigation of the incident showed that demonstrators had blocked the entrance to the Avigayil outpost and had tried to attack soldiers, “swearing and threatening and also lying down on the wheels of the military vehicles.”
The activists adamantly deny that they provoked the soldiers. “There was no violence on our part,” Flint claimed. “Not a single stone was thrown, and the army doesn’t have and won’t have any video of me resisting violently. There was no reason to [throw] me on the ground and to punch my neck.”
Turkenitz said the deputy battalion commander told the group it was in a security zone at the outpost. “I said, ‘Okay, we’ll move away,’ and he said, ‘try me.’ He was determined to be violent out of all proportion. No one had blocked the road. When they told us to get off it, we did. I have been doing this for many years, but the violent conduct and lack of judgment of this officer are something unusual.”
“We are not against the soldiers,” said Flint, who is himself a battalion commander in the reserves. “We are all former soldiers. I understand that they were put there by a government that has dictated policy to them. We didn’t even come to protest against Avigayil. The story is that Avigayil has 240 liters per day per person.” Referring to a southern West Bank Palestinian village in an area under full Israeli control, Flint said that residents of At-Tuwani receive 20 liters per person per day and that the community to which they were bringing water gets none at all.
Over the weekend Meretz lawmaker Mossi Raz and Joint List lawmaker Ofer Cassif contacted Defense Minister Benny Gantz about the incident. They said that in response to what they called the activists’ nonviolent activity “designed to ensure the basic right of the South Hebron Hills residents to water, the demonstrators were responded to with serious violence on the army’s part.” They called on Gantz to ensure that the incident is properly investigated and that conclusions are drawn “so that the repeated violence by the army toward demonstrators is stopped.”
Combatants for Peace also responded to the incident: "This was a peaceful protest, like all activities of Combatants for Peace. No one in the protest acted in a violent or disorderly manner, as can be seen in photos and videos of the event. The army's response is a bald-faced lie. The military's rampage in the face of non-violent action in the face of the transfer of a water tracker to a Palestinian village is shameful. But the IDF's attempt to cover up the incident with a false response points to a gross systemic failure."