IDF rebukes officer for violence against left-wing protest in W. Bank

Activists from the left-wing organizations Combatants for Peace, All That's Left and the Jordan Valley Coalition in the South Hebron Hills
(photo credit: COMBATANTS FOR PEACE)

The video showed IDF soldiers holding one left-wing activist in a chokehold and pushing another onto the ground.

The army reprimanded an IDF commander and his unit for their violent response to a left-wing protest in the South Hebron Hills region of the West Bank adding that in the future such incidents involving Israeli citizens would be better handled by the police. 

"The officer in charge is a respected commander," the IDF said on Sunday, two days after the Friday demonstration in which five activists were detained and three were injured.

"An investigation found, however, that he erred and acted in a way that did not conform to the reality [at hand] or with IDF norms," the army said in a statement.

"In light of this, the officer will be reprimand by his commanders," the IDF said.

The army took issue in particular with the use of stun grenades and tear gas against the Israeli and Palestinian activists that were connected to three NGOs: Combatants for Peace, All That's Left, and that Jordan Valley Coalition. The use of a blindfold on one of the arrestees was also problematic, IDF added. 

IDF soldiers clash with left-wing activists in South Hebron Hills (Credit: Combatants for Peace)

The event took place on Friday near the Avigayil outpost and the Palestinian village of a-Tawani. Area C is under IDF military and civilian control.

The army argued that the intent of the demonstration was to shut down the road leading to the outpost. Avigayil residents have reported that for the last year demonstrations near the outpost on Fridays have shut down the road and made it impossible for residents to enter and exit the settlement.

Combatants for Peace said that they were simply passing by the area en-route to providing water for Palestinians after the army shut down its well because it deemed it to be illegal.

The organization provided The Jerusalem Post with a photograph taken at the time of the army's arrival showing protestors marching by the road on each side, leaving room for cars to pass.

The army said that their investigation revealed that protestors had violently attacked soldiers in an attempt to provoke them and to "sabotage" their efforts. It added that the soldiers had made multiple attempts to verbally disperse the protestors in order to clear a traffic lane for settlers. Those efforts were met by curses and threats with demonstrators even lying on the wheels of the army vehicle, the IDF said.

IDF forces clashed with activists in the South Hebron hills, September 19, 2021

Combatants for Peace said in response that the IDF had not spoken to them as part of the investigation.

The videos released by activists and others on social media, however, do not show violence on the part of the activists. Instead, they are holding signs, Palestinian flags, and banging on a drum. They can be seen congregating around a tractor with a small flatbed carrying a steel cylinder of water and a large sign on top that read, "water access for all." 

In the video, soldiers could be seen throwing stun grenades at the activists and in one case pushing a man who was walking away from the road across the barren rocky ground.

In one incident captured on video, Tuly Flint, a former commander in the IDF Reserves, was placed in a chokehold.

Flint, who is the Israeli coordinator for Combatants for Peace, said he was standing with a sign in one hand and a megaphone in the other when a soldier came at him from behind and pinned him to the ground in a chokehold "George Floyd-style," he told The Jerusalem Post.

IDF forces clashed with activists in the South Hebron hills, September 19, 2021

"I grabbed my glasses in order to prevent them from breaking and I let go of my body so they would not have any reason to attack him," he said. 

One soldier put his knee against Flint's back "and then he deliberately looked for [the] main artery in my throat and choked me using his fist," Flint said.

"He waited for me to resist, but I didn't," Flint said. Video footage from the incident shows how a soldier had his knees on Flint's head, almost as if he was sitting on him.

In another video, an IDF officer can be seen lunging at an Israeli man from behind with such force that he was swept off his feet and thrust into the air. He tumbled as he landed on the ground.

The activist, in his 60s, who was wearing a gray T-shirt and jeans, could be seen in one of the videos with a blood-covered face.

He was taken to the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv, where he underwent surgery for damage to his tear duct. 

Two Palestinian activists were lightly injured by IDF stun grenades during the incident.

Meretz MK Mossi Raz (Meretz) was among the protesters. After the event, he wrote a letter to Defense Minister Benny Gantz asking that he investigate the matter and punish the soldiers.

"For 40 years I have been participating in demonstrations in the occupied territories, but I have never seen such blatant soldiers' violence against Israeli demonstrators as I witnessed today," Raz tweeted.

Flint said that the first soldiers who arrived at the scene came in an ambulance, adding that the IDF declared that the area was a closed military zone. "They did not provide any documentation," he said. 

Flint was one of the five arrestees. His hands were tied with a plastic band and he was placed in a jeep with the others, Flint said. They have driven around for three hours before they arrived at the police station in Hebron, where they were left in the vehicle, he said.

Flint added that they were released at about 7 p.m. 

Attorney Eitay Mack, who represents the activists, wrote a sharply worded letter to IDF top brass and police, including Gantz, explaining that the soldiers acted illegally in attacking the protestors.

Mack specifically blamed IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, explaining that violence against left-wing activists and Palestinians in the West Bank has increased since he came into office.

The attorney said that the soldiers at the scene were overheard attempting to synchronize their stories to show that the activists had acted violently. He noted that at the end of the day, the arrestees, of whom he counted six, were released without any charges and that their water cylinder was transferred to the Palestinians.

One journalist, Israel Frey, tweeted that he had been attacked a month ago by the same IDF major who sent the activist flying, had remained silent about it until this moment.

Friday's protest took place within the larger context of the battle for Area C. The Left holds that Israel is attempting to push the Palestinians out of that portion of the West Bank by denying them building permits, a move that forces them to build illegally, and by shutting down water to that illegal construction.

The event, Flint said, bore no connection to the Avigayil outpost, but was rather focused on the issue of water. 

"I do not know what the amount of water on a small tractor can do," Flint said, adding that it was important to push against water inequity, particularly for Palestinians in Area C who on average have access to only 20 liters day or as in this case, no water at all.

The Right believes that the Palestinian Authority is attempting to seize control of Area C by promoting illegal Palestinian construction, including in the area of the Avigayil outpost.

Right-wing politicians defended the IDF's actions. 

Yamina faction head MK Nir Orbach charged that the IDF had rushed to judgment by stating that the officer's actions were inappropriate before the investigation had been concluded.

The video images, he said, only showed a partial story and should not be determinative.

Residents of the Avigail outpost said that left-wing protests have taken place near their community for the last year. They have been unable to leave their homes on Friday's and they contend that the actions of the left-wing protestors are creating tensions between them and their Palestinian neighbors.

One woman said that there is a push by the PA and left-wing organizations to strengthen and expand Palestinian communities near Avigayil, to transform the outposts into an isolated island that would ensure their demise.

She charged that the left-wing activists know how to incite soldiers to violence and then they capture those images on the video to create an impression that they are innocent victims of a hostile force.

South Hebron Hills Regional Council head Yochai Dari said called on the IDF to prevent the left-wing activists from returning to the area.

"They were on their way to visit a Palestinian who built an illegal home on state land in the middle of a firing zone" that had already been demolished once, Damri said.

The IDF and the Major on the scene, "did what needs to be done in the face of the violent and extremist anarchists who come every week to inflame the sector and encourages violence against our residents," Damri said.

"I demand the immediate declaration of the area as a closed military area and the demolition of the illegal structure erected near Avigail," he said. 

One Avigayil resident said that weekly protests which make community residents feel unsafe to leave their homes are a form of violence.

One female resident of Avigayil said she had been stuck behind Friday's protest, unable to pass. "It was only luck that my children were not with me," she said.

She locked the car doors as stun grenades flew around her. 'I prayed I would be OK, I was sitting there alone, it was a terrible feeling," she said, adding that she shook from fear. Eventually, the soldiers were able to break a path for her, but even when she got home she could not stop shaking. 

There is only way to enter Avigayil, she said adding that, "we have no other way to get home."

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