This article was published in partnership with Local Call.
On Monday, the Israeli media lit up with reports of a suspected “lynching” of an Israeli settler by dozens of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. The alleged victim, Itamar Cohen, by some accounts a “shepherd,” was near Ma’on settlement in the South Hebron Hills when around 30 Palestinians supposedly “ambushed” him, sending him to hospital with a fractured skull.
By Wednesday, however, in the wake of an investigation by +972 and Local Call, the Israeli press began walking back its claims. The “lynching,” it turns out, had never taken place. A 23-minute video that recorded the entire event from beginning to end, but which had not been seen by the Israeli public until late Wednesday, revealed exactly what took place. Moreover, the incident began when settlers from a nearby outpost had descended, armed, onto private Palestinian land, and assaulted the Palestinians working there.
The footage, which was handed over to Israeli police on Tuesday night, shows Cohen approaching a group of Palestinian farmers from the direction of Havat Ma’on, a settler outpost. Cohen, who was masked and armed with a metal pipe, arrived with a group of four other settlers, one armed with an M-16 rifle, and another also masked and carrying a club.
Watch the video of the attack below:
הפייק לינץ’ בהר חברון: הנה איתמר כהן, רעול פנים, אוחז במוט מברזל, מגיע מהתנחלות מרוחקת עם רעול פנים ומתנחל חמוש ב-M16, לאדמה פלסטינית פרטית, במטרה לתקוף ולגרש 2-3 חקלאים שעובדים בה. רגעים רלוונטים מתוך סרטון רציף של 23 דקות.
גופי תקשורת – לא מאוחר לתקן. pic.twitter.com/GLQk0r2gkB
— Yuval Abraham יובל אברהם (@yuval_abraham) September 14, 2022
Cohen starts waving a pipe in front of a Palestinian farmer, Hafez Hureini, who in response waves the shovel he was using to work the land. In the video, you hear someone being struck; the camera doesn’t capture the moment of impact, instead panning to another settler from the Havat Ma’on outpost, dressed in military pants, holding an M-16 and firing several times into the air. In the course of the attack, Hureini had both his arms broken.
At a certain point, the video shows Cohen falling to the ground, then immediately getting back up. The Palestinians call the police, after which Cohen leaves the scene, still masked and with the pipe in his hand. Ten minutes later, according to Magen David Adom, their emergency hotline received a call asking for medical assistance. Afterwards, Hureini was arrested and is waiting to be brought before a military court for attempted murder.
‘He was protecting us’
Although the media ran with the narrative that around 30 Palestinians had “lynched” Cohen — details that were delivered to journalists by an anonymous security official — an investigation by +972 Magazine and Local Call, including a review of the video, shows these descriptions to be false.
Beyond the fact that it was Cohen who began brandishing the metal pipe, the confrontation took place between five settlers and a few Palestinian farmers, not “30 Palestinians.” Moreover, the entire incident took place on privately-owned Palestinian land, as both the Israeli army and the Civil Administration have admitted. The land, located near the village of A-Tuwani, is around 380 meters from the Havat Ma’on outpost, and around 180 meters from Ma’on.
This is not the first time that settlers have attacked Palestinian farmers in this area, and the choice of location is not a coincidence: the outpost’s access road, which the settlers themselves built, passes right next to this plot of land. Masked men from the outpost have assaulted and driven out the landowners from the area several times.
“My father and I went out, as we do every day, to work the land,” said Hureini’s son, who was present at the event and asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution by settlers and the army. “I saw two masked men in the valley who were driving away the sheep that were being shepherded by the children from the village next to ours.” The video confirms his testimony.
“My father asked me to bring our sheep home so that they would not be harmed. So I went,” Hureini’s son continued. “When I returned, I saw that [the settlers] had reached us. They gathered around my father with poles in their arms and began to beat him. A red-haired settler also fired a weapon. My father had a stick and he was defending himself. It’s the human thing to do when someone comes with a weapon and shoots in the air, and someone tries to hit you in the head with a metal pipe. He was protecting us.”
Following the incident, both soldiers and police officers arrived at the scene. Hureini called the Red Crescent to send an ambulance. Local Palestinian residents said that one of the armed settlers blocked the ambulance’s path upon its arrival, after which settlers punctured its wheels and uprooted olive trees on the privately-owned Palestinian land, in the presence of the soldiers.
Interrogations, threats, and false accusations
The real nightmare began later that night, when three army and Border Police jeeps arrived to raid A-Tuwani. They stopped in front of the first house in the village, toward which soldiers threw tear gas and stun grenades unprovoked. They continued driving and did the same to a number of homes.
A family traveling in a car, including children, began suffocating from the gas, and were treated by the Red Crescent. People throughout the village began yelling, and children’s cries rose from inside the houses. The echoes of the explosions of the stun grenades continued for about an hour, and soldiers took up positions on the roof of a nearby house.
As this was taking place, +972 asked the IDF Spokesperson about the massive use of stun grenades and tear gas in the village. The spokesperson claimed the soldiers had “entered the village in order to search for suspects in the attack on the settlers in Havat Ma’on,” and that they were using riot control measures to disperse Palestinians who were throwing stones at them.
Later that night, soldiers accompanied by jeeps raided the village once again. They entered different homes, one after another, to take the men to be interrogated next to the village.
“I was sitting in the room when a soldier kicked in the front door,” said Rinad Hureini, whose house was the first to be raided. “They went through room by room and kicked in all the doors. They asked me where my father was. Then they entered the neighbor’s house and did the same thing.”
“The officer told me to gather all the men for him,” said Hani Rab’i, another resident of the village. They demanded that he accompany them for the tour of the homes. “They told me: ‘We want the head of the village, bring him to us,'” Rab’i said. According to him, this is how the soldiers gathered a group of about 20 men who were taken, one by one, to meet a Shin Bet officer out in the fields next to the village. The army confirmed to +972 that these “field interrogations” indeed took place.
“It was meant to scare everyone, after all the stun grenades and the gas,” Rab’i said. “[The Shin Bet agent] said: ‘You are always in the mosque, inciting violence.’ He asked me where I was at the time of the incident, and I told him I was at home with my family. Then he released me.”
Another resident who was interrogated, and who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said that the Shin Bet agent told him he would “[s]trike your village with an iron fist, and more than that, after what you have done. You will see things you have never seen before. I will not leave a single man in A-Tuwani.” According to him, the Shin Bet agent informed him that he sees him as a leading figure in the village, and that if residents of A-Tuwani invited left-wing activists to his home, the agent would personally arrest him.
“He told me explicitly to be careful about hosting Israeli ‘anarchists’ in the village, as well as [B’Tselem field researcher] Nasser Nawaja and Rateb Jabour [a coordinator for the Wall Resistance Commission],” the resident said. “He told me that they ‘come here to make a mess’ and that they are the cause of the problems.” The agent also threatened that A-Tuwani’s residents would be “the ones who will lose out from their presence here.” The resident retorted that it was the masked settlers, whom the Israeli security forces allowed to go on the attack, who were the cause of the problems.
In addition to promoting false claims of a “lynching,” some settler media outlets and politicians also adopted the narrative that “anarchists” and “peace activists” — Israelis and internationals who accompany shepherds and document cases of settler violence — were connected to the so-called lynching, and that they had taken part in a “planned ambush.”
Yochai Damari, who heads the Mount Hebron Regional Council, wrote on his Facebook page on Tuesday that “during the entire attack, ‘peace activists’ sat and documented what was happening without lifting a finger to help their Jewish brothers…I am in contact with all the security forces, with the police, demanding that the provocateurs and agitators be removed from the area.”
Yet the video footage clearly shows that not a single Israeli left-wing activist was present while the masked settlers were confronting the Palestinians. An Israeli activist arrived at the scene only after Cohen had already left.
This narrative is not coincidental. In the occupied territories, the agitators are protected from the law, while those who document the violence and experience it are seen as criminals. The need to create a false reality is one of the ways Israelis can justify the brutal violence meted out against Palestinians every single day under a military regime. The Shin Bet, the police, and the army — as agents of this violence — take full part in it. Unfortunately, so does the media.
A version of this article first appeared in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.