QUSRA: Palestinian villagers on Tuesday briefly detained and beat up a group of Israeli settlers, accusing them of having thrown rocks at farmers tending their fields in the occupied West Bank.
The incident - the details of which were disputed by a representative of a nearby settlement - stoked tensions long simmering on land where Palestinians seek statehood under struggling US-sponsored peace negotiations with Israel.
The Israelis, who appeared to be aged between 15 and 30, were detained in an uninhabited house on the outskirts of the Palestinian village of Qusra after Palestinians said there had been a settler assault on local farmers.
“I was tending my fields when a group of around 30 settlers came down the hill and attacked us with stones,” Palestinian farmer Mahmoud Tubasi told Reuters.
“We chased them and they fled to a house under construction. They were cornered there and some of the people here beat them - they had attacked us on our own land.”
A Reuters witness said villagers beat 15 settlers with their fists and sticks, causing some to bleed from the head and mouth. The Palestinians later released the group to Israeli soldiers.
The army said it recovered 11 Israelis who had taken part in a stone-throwing confrontation with Palestinians which followed the evacuation, by Israeli police, of an unauthorised building in the nearby settlement of Esh Kodesh.
Some far-right settlers have responded to Israeli government efforts to rein them in with so-called “price tag” attacks on Palestinian property. The vandalism is designed to stir up sectarian tensions and discourage Israeli authorities.
An Esh Kodesh settler disputed the accounts of both the Palestinian villagers and the Israeli army, however.
The settler, Aharon Katsov, told Israel Radio that the young men held at Qusra “were not right-wing activists ... They were touring the area, and they (Palestinians) came along and lynched them - almost killed them”. Katsov said Israeli authorities had not evacuated a building, but rather had uprooted 5 acres of settlement olive groves whose ownership had been contested by Palestinians.
Violence in the West Bank has increased in recent months, and at least 19 Palestinians and four Israelis have been killed in the territory since peace negotiations were revived.
A 40-day survey, published two weeks ago by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, documented 27 cases of settler attacks on Palestinian farmers during the olive harvest season last fall.
Palestinians want to create a state in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip - an enclave ruled by Hamas Islamists opposed to the US peace effort - with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Israel captured the areas in the 1967 Middle East war and pulled troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005. Palestinians say Israel’s settlements on occupied land - which most countries consider illegal - will deny them a viable state.
Israel’s defence minister said on Tuesday wide gaps remained in the peace talks after US Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest visit, and he cast doubt over the chances of reaching a final accord by an April target. Israel cites historical and biblical links to the West Bank and Jerusalem and says it intends to keep major settlement blocs under any future peace agreement. In a separate suspected “price tag” incident, vandals slashed car tyres and scrawled “Arabs=Murderers” and “No co-existence!” on a wall in Jaffa, which has a large Arab population and is part of Tel Aviv on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, a police spokesman said.
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