El-Mufaqara, Avigayil, and Havat Maon: Where did my anger get me?
This is a story borne out of anger. I was angry at the apparent one-sidedness of the reporting at what happened at el-Mufaqara and the way it seemed everyone I knew accepted the media reports as unadulterated truth. It is a story of how I found a crack in the wall and did not give up until I was able to pry that crack wider and discover a fascinating and sad larger story. I share with you the process I underwent, what I discovered along the way from people I met, and I hope I can do justice to what I found.
A Lie That Refuses to Die
The incident at el-Mufaqara in the South Hebron Hills in September 2021 got much “air-time” in Israel without the slightest reference to context. Had journalists actually been interested, it would not have been difficult for them, with their resources, to gather enough information to provide readers with a story that described the complex reality as fully as possible. Instead, we were fed a perversion that refuses to fade away. Resurrected periodically in anti-Israel propaganda, the Jews in this story are repeatedly accused of having committed a “pogrom”. I have not seen anyone question the use of this loaded term — applied first to the massacre of Jews in the Russian Empire and later in other parts of the world, including pre-1948 Israel — now, as a form of cultural appropriation, applied to the Jews themselves in an event that included not a single death.
The el-Mufaqara story became a flagship for intensified vilification of residents of Judea-Samaria (J&S), already having to defend their choice of residence and now accused of a phenomenon called “settler violence”. Even members of the Israeli government were quick to label them and demand “justice” just hours after the events took place, taking the word of B’Tselem, an anti-Israel NGO, as if what they reported was faithful to what really happened. There was not even a suggestion that conclusions should wait until after an investigation would have taken place.
Paying attention to the social media and mainstream news at the time, whether Israeli or foreign, anti-Israel or even pro-Israeli, you get the impression that Jews living in J&S just go out and look for Arabs to harass and vandalize on a daily basis. There are questions all of them should have asked but did not. I will return to this later.
What they wrote at the time
Times of Israel reports:
On Tuesday afternoon, dozens of masked Israelis threw stones at Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills. The rocks smashed cars and injured at least 12 Palestinians, including the three-year-old, Palestinian and Israeli witnesses said.
Some Palestinians threw stones back at the settlers as well, leading to clashes between the two sides, witnesses said. Three Israelis were injured as well, according to Hebrew media reports.
In videos from the scene, Israeli settlers can be seen breaking Palestinian car windows and hurling stones at Palestinian homes. The confrontations took place near the small Palestinian shepherding village of al-Mufaqara, a cluster of homes that straddles two illegal Israeli West Bank outposts, Avigayil and Havat Maon.
It is interesting that the article refers to the decidedly illegal encampment of el-Mufaqara as if it is not illegal while calling Avigayil and Havat Maon illegal whereas they are not. While they are not officially recognized, they were established with government approval. This is a longer story that I will tell one day. On the other hand, el-Mufaqara is illegal and I wrote about that here.
The Jerusalem Post reports on about 60 Jewish settlers and 30 Palestinian Arabs involved in the violence with five injuries, including the 3 year-old Mohammad Bakr Hussein. Three of the injured were reportedly from among the Jews. The article also raises the question why the IDF did not intervene.
Ynet provided this information:
Video of Tuesday’s attack released by Israeli rights group B’Tselem showed several shirtless settlers with scarves wrapped around their faces hurling stones at a cluster of homes and vehicles in the Palestinian village of al-Mufaqara. Israeli troops stood among the settlers but did not appear to be taking any action to stop them.
Sami Hureini, a local Palestinian activist, said a group of Israeli settlers attacked a Palestinian shepherd near the village of Mufaqara and slaughtered four of his sheep. He said they then stormed the village itself, attacking residents with clubs and stones.
The Times of Israel article and some social media posts say that soldiers did intervene, throwing tear gas and stun grenades at the Palestinians.
When reporting on the arrest of three Jewish suspects in the incident, Israel National News writes:
Police say that a dozen masked assailants attacked an Arab village in the South Hebron Hills on Tuesday afternoon and threw stones at the residents.
The Ynet report can be found verbatim in a number of other news sites, probably originating from the Associated Press.That means that there is wide-spread distribution of an article pushing hard the view that the Jews initiated an attack on a shepherd, killing four of his sheep and doing horrendous damage in the hamlet.
What can we be sure about?
Given the inconsistencies in these reports and others, the only things we can be sure about are that Jews and Arabs threw rocks at each other that Tuesday afternoon; some of this happened in the hills outside the Arab village and some inside the village, causing property damage and 3-year-old Mohammad was injured. We do not know what the IDF did or did not do, how many Jews or Arabs were involved, nor how it started.
When I read that a B’Tselem video apparently formed the original basis for what was known about the incident, I was sure that we were not getting the whole story. After all, it is common knowledge that B’Tselem, a well-funded leftist anti-Zionist organization, hands out cameras to Palestinian Arabs for them to document what they call unprovoked settler violence, beginning to film only after the Jews start responding violently to being attacked, the initiation of the attack being left out of the video documentation. I have also heard these accusations from former IDF soldiers who witnessed the phenomenon first-hand.
Interestingly, JPost inserted an image just under the headline of their article showing an Arab throwing rocks and claiming that two-dozen times a day, rocks are thrown at Israeli cars on Highway 60. Nobody seems to question if this has anything to do with “unprovoked settler violence”.
In fact, recently released official data provides the proof of what Jewish residents of J&S have been trying to impress upon the media — that is, that they have to contend with about 18 terrorist attacks of various forms (stabbings, rock throwing, Molotov cocktails, car rammings) each and every day. It irks me that we seem to need absolute figures before we even consider that there may be some truth behind the stories told by the Jews who live in J&S, that perhaps what they say about their violence being defensive rather than offensive is true.
I am sure that there are Jewish settlers who instigate violent attacks, but we should not assume that this is the norm. Each incident should be analyzed on its own.
A hint about another side to the story
The articles referred to above only quote Arabs who were attacked and Jewish leaders who condemned Jewish violence. Among all that I read soon after the incident, only Haaretz quoted a representative of the Jewish communities in the region, writing:
The Hebron Mount regional council head, Yochai Damari responded to the incident, saying, “The picture that emerges is complex.” He said that the Israeli settlers don’t live in the region and that they claimed that they were attacked with stones. … He added that the vehicle of a security guard of the Havat Maon settler outpost was damaged by stones, . . .
Complex? Did the reporter explore what he meant by that? And to claim that those Jews involved in the violence do not live in the region sounds like a dismissal of responsibility. Interestingly, it has come to light that at least two Israeli left-wing Jews who do not live anywhere near regularly participate in the demonstrations supporting the Palestinian Arabs and sometimes are part of the incitement to violence. So I wondered what had really happened?
Then a video in a report on the Hebrew station, Channel 20 was brought to my attention. In the video, Arabs are moving quickly and surely in the hills toward Havat Maon. A few are launching rocks using slingshots that increase the distance and speed at which the rocks travel and increase their impact upon hitting someone.
The video is credited to an organization called Ayin L’Tsion. Within days of the event, I spoke to the CEO of the organization, Ari Kaniel about the events of that Tuesday. For some reason, the story he tells does not sound very much like the one in the news.
Jews with cameras
In explaining his organization, Kaniel, a private investigator by profession, asks people if they are familiar with the camera project run by B’Tselem. When they answer in the affirmative, he responds that Ayin L’Zion is the opposite of that — they provide cameras to Jewish residents of J&S for the purposes of documenting the part of violent confrontations B’Tselem is not interested in — the part where the Arabs provoke the Jews.
Given that Israel is still living under conditions of war and cameras have become a weapon of war, and given that pikuach nefesh (saving lives) is of utmost importance in Judaism, rabbis have given permission to the Orthodox Jews of J&S to use cameras on Shabbat and holidays (otherwise forbidden) in order to provide the IDF with faces of the Arabs attacking them and to counteract the lies told of Jewish instigation.
Similarly, throwing rocks is permitted on holy days only in self-defence.
What I write here I learned first from from Kaniel (and an initial article was published here) but that felt very incomplete to me. Therefore, I made a few trips to the region to see it for myself and talk with residents, as well as the regional council spokeswoman. I wanted to speak with the Arabs of al-Mufaqara but was unable to make contact. What follows is what I put together from these trips and conversations.
The reader should keep in mind that, until that fateful day in September, relations between the Arab residents of el-Mufaqara and the Jewish residents of Avigayil and Havat Maon were quite cordial. And this is the sad part. One member of Havat Maon told me that just a few days before the violent incident, four sheep ran off from a Jewish shepherd’s flock. An Arab from a neighbouring outpost held the sheep and called out to the Jew to come get them, sharing a cup of tea at the same time. And that was not an unusual story.
I learned that there were friendly relations among some of the Jews and the Arabs, not just cordial, but friendly, visiting each other in their homes. And residents of Avigayil felt safe walking in the hills outside their community (a community without a perimeter wall, in fact), taking hikes on Shabbat and holidays. When I first visited the area to gather information about the violence, people I spoke with were unsure if these relationships were now permanently shattered. When I visited again in December, however, it appears that things had quieted down and the huge degree of hostility did not seem to persist. In fact, in an interview with Yehuda Bazaq on a different matter, he told me:
Relations with the Arabs are dynamic and change all the time. The general atmosphere changed dramatically following the violent Simchat Torah incident. But even now, some of the friendships among some Jews in Avigayil and Arabs in el-Mufaqara remain strong. In fact, when the [Israeli Civil Administration] inspector said he would take the tractor away [from Hamamdi, a resident of el-Mufaqara who was caught illegally cultivating state land] and store it in a Jewish settlement, Hamamdi asked that it be taken to Avigayil, saying that in Avigayil the people are good.
What happened at el-Mufaqara?
There were two parts to the incident on Simchat Torah, the first occuring when a group of residents and visitors to Havat Maon were on a hike from there to the community in Avigayil, a walk a few kilometers long. Many of these were apparently teenage visitors from Jerusalem and not residents of the region. That is who Damari was referring to. Regardless, they were exuberant and perhaps some of them drunk from the Simchat Torah festivities and likely making a lot of noise.
Walking between the two communities, necessarily passing on a dirt road alongside the outpost, was not an unusual occurence. This time, however, a group of Arab men are said to have come out from el-Mufaqara, attacking them with rocks and sticks. Instead of scampering away in fear, these unarmed Jews picked up rocks and drove the Arabs back into the village. Kaniel claims that the Jews were able to drive them back because the Arabs are not used to Jews defending themselves like that. The Jews kept up the fighting in the village itself until the IDF came. That is when the army used tear gas to break up the hostilities.
I was told by someone who knows the residents of el-Mufaqara well that the Arab instigators were not from there but B’Tselem activists (Jews and Arabs) living in a-Tawani, a legal town very close by. We know that there are two Jewish activists living in the home of Basel Adra of B’Tselem because I saw a B’Tselem Facebook post of the IDF raiding the place and taking their laptops for investigation. I can no longer find that post so perhaps it was taken down.
The Jewish youth were not attacked on their way from Havat Maon to Avigayil but on their way back again. It is possible that, knowing they would be returning by foot the same way they came, an ambush was prepared. This is speculation on the part of someone I spoke with.
In this incident, three Jews were seriously injured and about ten lightly injured. Some Jews refused to be taken to the hospital as they were afraid of being arrested if they went in for medical treatment.
The Jews did not get any video documentation of the first incident since they did not take cameras out with them on the hike — on holidays and Shabbat they only bring out the cameras when something has already started to happen.
And, in fact, about an hour after this first incident, a few dozen Arabs amassed in the hills preparing to storm Havat Maon. The sound of their approach is what got the volunteers from Ayin L’Zion to get their cameras and document it. It was during this incident that the security vehicle at Havat Maon was damaged, as reported in Haaretz.
Kaniel told me that the IDF arrived quickly at this point, before the Arabs could enter Havat Maon. None of the Arabs in the video were arrested in spite of the fact that their faces are clearly seen.
In an email, the Israeli Police Spokesperson’s Office informed me that a number of Arabs and Jews were arrested for their part in the incident at el-Mufaqara. Indictments were brought down for some of them (Jews? Arabs? not a word about this) and one suspect is being handled by the IDF prosecution.
Early on, two of the five Jews arrested on suspicion of participation in the violence were released.
ההתפרעויות בדרום הר חברון: שוחררו שניים מהחשודים היהודים שנעצרו אתמול בחשד לתקיפה והתפרעות. השופטת: “בקשת המעצר נגדם מלכתחילה מעוררת אי נחת. לא ניתן שלא להתרשם מכך שהמעצר הינו על רקע אפיונם”. מעצר של קטין נוסף החשוד בתקיפת חייל הוארך עד יום ראשון@carmeldangor https://t.co/lPExufsBUO
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) October 1, 2021
Justice Havi Toker remarked that it appears that these two were arrested solely on the basis of their appearance, alluding to them being religious Jews. Nothing else has been released regarding the progress in this case.
Trying to outdo each other
It seems that some anti-Zionist Israeli organizations may be trying to outdo each other and the media in their defamation of settlers. Combatants for Peace (see what I wrote about them here and here) sent out an email in which they wrote:
Settlers came down from the hills, masked and armed. They started by killing villager’s sheep and destroying any existing water pipes. Then, they began attacking villagers. They went from house to house, smashing windows and cars with machetes and knives. They attacked shepherds and threw stones at children – and one small boy, aged three years old, is in the hospital with internal bleeding. When the villagers attempted to protect themselves, the Israeli military defended the settlers, furthering the attack by throwing tear-gas at the villagers. The attack was described in the media as a ‘pogrom’.
By “media” they mean 972mag, an unabashedly anti-Israel website. If one can find truth in any of this, surely it will be determined in a formal investigation. In the meantime, I spoke to many people and they all denied that any sheep were killed, nor were children stoned. I forgot to ask about pipes being destroyed. And remember, walking on the road passing by el-Mufaqara was a usual occurence — turning this into “settlers came down from the hills, masked and armed. . .” is perhaps an inventive exaggeration of teenagers literally and figuratively drunk on the holiday, disturbing the quiet of these ancient hills.
The fact that there were no films of Jews doing the horrible things they were accused of should have raised suspicions on the part of journalists reporting on the incident. If Jews actually had killed sheep, why is there no video of this? If Jews deliberatly threw stones at kids, why is there no video of this? Does anyone think that B’Tselem would miss the opportunity to take incriminating videos of this nature? And we know that Basel Adra, a “journalist” for B’Tselem was there because he reported on it. Remember, Adra lives in a-Tawani so one must also ask at what point he arrived at the scene: Did he rush out when he heard about it or was he already there when it began (meaning he knew it was going to happen in advance)?
I did see one single photograph of a slaughtered sheep somewhere (unfortunately, don’t remember now where I saw it), but a single slaughtered sheep photographed without a date stamp does not tell a story — perhaps it was slaughtered by Arabs for their own dinner table.
Why were none of the questions raised here ever dealt with in any of the news reports I read, not in the immediate aftermath of the incident and not later in retrospect. It is as if there is an accepted version of the events of Simchat Torah 2021 and nobody feels the need to explore any alternative possibilities.
I had heard that there was an investigation pending so I wrote to the IDF Spokesperson and the Police asking about whether or not one had actually been carried out. The Police informed me that the investigation is still pending. The IDF Spokesperson’s Office responded with this:
The IDF is committed to the well-being of all residents in the area and acts to prevent violence within its area of responsibility and is in direct contact with the various security forces in these regions.
A Particularly Curious Moment
After the very noncommital response from the IDF spokesperson’s office, I asked specifically about the report by HaKol Heyehudi regarding an Arab supposedly beginning to set a building on fire and calling out that the Jews did it. This is their response:
During the incident an officer among the troops noticed a Palestinian lighting a building on fire, who later claimed that the building was set on fire by Jews.
This is the exact same response the IDF gave to HaKol Hayehudi on 5 October 2021. Basel Adra responded to the accusation back then with a video of his own on the B’Tselem Facebook page in which he showed smouldering brush supposedly from IDF tear gas canister, saying that this is really what the soldier saw and not anyone setting a building on fire. That video has since disappeared. Given that, and the fact that the IDF has not backed down from their original statement, it appears that we can accept the original version as the correct one: Adra had tried to add to the criminal acts allegedly committed by the Jews but this time was caught red-handed.
This open provocation on the part of Adra should have led journalists to question how much of the B’Tselem version of the entire incident could be accepted unconditionally. Yet the anti-Israeli narrative of that day continues to be used as ammunition in the war against Jewish residents in Judea-Samaria. B’Tselem and other similar organizations continue to paint Israel black day after day after day.
There are not enough investigative reports being conducted to counteract their lies, to sort out the wheat from the chaff. The resources it would require are, perhaps, prohibitive. It takes only a few moments to put up a photo or video of rock-throwing Jews or a burning car and accuse the Jews of being violent monsters trying to rid the land of the Arabs. It takes hours and hours of work to investigate whether there is any truth behind the claims.
Will the police help us at least in the case of the Simchat Torah incident at el-Mufaqara? Will they actually complete an investigation and make its conclusions available to the public?