Israeli settlers attacked four Israeli soldiers with pepper spray Wednesday night amid high tensions in the West Bank.
At the time of the attack, the Israeli Defense Forces were trying to disperse a violent demonstration by settlers near Nablus, which is some 70 kilometers (43 miles) north of Jerusalem.
Four IDF soldiers, including the commanding officer of a paratrooper battalion, were attacked with pepper spray. The incident occurred in the town of Huwara as soldiers tried to stop dozens of settlers from throwing stones at Palestinian vehicles driving by, according to an IDF statement.
Two additional soldiers were later attacked by settlers with pepper spray just south of Huwara at Tapuach Junction.
Israel Police said Thursday morning that one of the suspects in the assault – a 20-year-old IDF soldier from the northern West Bank – attempted to flee the scene and was subsequently arrested on suspicion of participating in the widely-condemned attack. He is allegedly being detained at Israel’s Shin Bet headquarters, which addresses issues of Jewish extremism.
The soldiers “were attacked violently, including with pepper spray from several settlers toward the troops,” the IDF reported. “As a result, the commander of the unit was injured along with another soldier.”
IDF Chief Aviv Kochavi 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,” Kochavi said on Thursday morning. “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.”
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid labeled the attackers “dangerous criminals.”
“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,” he said.
“They endanger the lives of our soldiers and they harm the State of Israel,” he wrote on Twitter. “I fully support combat forces in the field and the paratroopers’ battalion commander and their soldiers who are there to protect the people of Israel.”
Other Israeli Knesset members also condemned the violence and called for the attackers to be brought to justice.
Israel’s Public Security Minister Omer Barlev equated the settlers' behavior with terrorism.
“The violence perpetrated tonight by rioting gangs of settlers against IDF soldiers and against Palestinians – in the Huwara and Tapuach area — is an act of terrorism in every way,” he tweeted, adding that it was “a moral and ethical disgrace of the highest order.”
“Those people do not represent West Bank settlers,” wrote Israel’s Minister of Interior Ayelet Shaked, and called the confrontation “a disgraceful incident” that she condemns.
With Israeli elections on the horizon on Nov. 1, party candidates weighed in with their opinions and took advantage of the opportunity to politicize the incident.
Far-right pro-settler Bezalel Smotrich, of the Religious Zionism party, which will be joining with the Otzma Yehudit party for the election, tweeted: “One does not raise a hand against IDF soldiers. Period.”
Smotrich’s political ally, Itamar Ben Gvir – head of Otzma Yehudit – emphatically stated that Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz is to blame and “the responsibility rests on his shoulders.”
Ben Gvir criticized the IDF for not mentioning at the outset that the Huwara settlers had been responding to Palestinian aggression.
"The IDF hid that the Palestinians started it,” he said.
“This is further testimony to the politicization that Gantz is trying to introduce to the IDF,” Ben Gvir said, accusing the defense minister of “tying the hands of IDF soldiers” in the fight against terrorism while “abandoning the security of the country.”
"Gantz abandons the lives of the heroic settlers in Judea and Samaria,” Ben Gvir added.
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the “attempts to tarnish the larger settler public because of the wrongful acts of a few individuals. The clear majority of settlers respect the law.”
Yossi Dagan, head of the West Bank’s Samaria Regional Council said in a statement that the rioters who attacked the IDF soldiers “are not part of the spirit of Samaria and we all despise those who attack soldiers. We love the IDF soldiers and their commanders. These are a handful of thugs and everyone knows that they do not in any way represent the settlement in Samaria, anyone who tries to imply otherwise is a hypocrite. Everyone also knows that most of them are not from the settlement in Samaria at all.”
Knesset Member Mossi Raz of the Meretz party added: "This serious incident must not be seen out of context. Yesterday human rights activists were brutally attacked, the days before that the Palestinian residents of Hawara were attacked. Settler violence increases its intensity every day and must be dealt with all severity."
Hostilities in Huwara and the surrounding areas have escalated in recent weeks.
The IDF has placed a barrier around Nablus to curb a wave of violence being perpetrated by an armed faction known as Lion’s Den, which has been responsible for shooting attacks on troops and civilians since its formation in August.
On Thursday last week, a group of Jewish settlers attacked shops and residents in Huwara with iron bars and stones, during which more than 40 Palestinians were wounded, according to reports.
There were additional incidents of fighting reported on Wednesday when masked settlers threw stones and assaulted volunteers and Palestinians harvesting olives at an annual festival, claiming they were provoked by threats which resulted in two people being injured.
The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.