Israeli soldiers have been removing Palestinian flags hanging in a West Bank town in recent weeks, in a move the Israeli officials said they hoped will help prevent clashes between locals and Israeli settlers.
However, officials said, they have now stopped the practice.
Over the past weeks, Israeli troops have been documented both removing Palestinian flags from lampposts in the town of Huwara, and protecting settlers as they remove the flags too.
Footage has shown Israeli soldiers distancing Palestinians from the area using stun grenades and pointing their weapons at angry Palestinian onlookers on a main highway that is used by both Palestinians and Israelis.
Recent weeks have also seen several stone-throwing attacks by Palestinians against Israeli cars traveling through the town on Route 60, a major West Bank artery that links both Palestinian cities and Israeli settlements.
In one stone-throwing incident, on Tuesday night, the son and two grandchildren of a right-wing lawmaker were wounded.
The flag grab began two weeks ago, after an Israeli woman claimed her car had been attacked and surrounded by Palestinians while traversing the town. She was unhurt. Several days later, Israeli settlers returned to Huwara to remove flags, as an act of revenge.
מבצע צבאי משותף של חיילים ומתנחלים להורדת דגל פלסטיני ביישוב חווארה .״ממשלת הורדת הדגל״. pic.twitter.com/VkPFjuuqnV
— Ahmad Tibi (@Ahmad_tibi) May 19, 2022
The military believes arriving at the scene first to remove the Palestinian flags will prevent settlers from doing so themselves, and thus prevent potential clashes with local Palestinian residents, according to an assessment officials described to The Times of Israel.
The occupation forces remove the Palestinian flag on the main street of the town of Hawara, south of Nablus
قوات الاحتلال تقوم بإزالة #علم_فلسطين في الشارع الرئيس لبلدة حوارة جنوب #نابلس.#EndIsraeliApartheid pic.twitter.com/S0R8mOujdw
— Samar Mohammad ???????????????? (@samarmoh1177) May 18, 2022
However, footage showed troops protecting a handful of Israeli settlers as they took down one of the flags last week, while launching teargas at onlookers. The Israel Defense Forces told The Times of Israel in a statement that its forces arrived at the scene after a violent confrontation had developed between the settlers and Palestinians in the area.
The soldiers worked to keep the two sides apart, but a number of Palestinians began throwing stones at the forces, who responded with riot dispersal measures, the military said.
لليوم الثاني على التوالي
قوات الاحتلال تقوم بانزال العلم الفلسطيني من على الشارع الرئيسي ببلدة #حوارة جنوب مدينة #نابلس pic.twitter.com/9nmhnwGUmO
— Rafat Darawsheh ???????? ???? (@rafatdarawsheh) May 18, 2022
Days later, Israeli troops were seen again protecting a group of settlers parading through the Palestinian town with Israeli flags, the morning after the attack in which the family of an MK was hurt. The show of force did not appear to be coordinated with the military, as sources said troops arrived after the fact.
But again, troops responded with tear gas toward the onlookers, without immediately dispersing the settlers.
#شاهد مسيرة للمستوطنين في بلدة حوارة جنوب نابلس، حيث يرفعون علم الاحتلال بحماية من جنود الاحتلال، وتصدي الشبان لهم pic.twitter.com/FPtKsqaNfW
— Newpress | نيو برس (@NewpressPs) May 25, 2022
Israeli law does not bar Palestinian flags, but police regularly remove them from public spaces and seize them from Palestinians waving them in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.
Both police and the military claim to have the authority to remove anything that may spark clashes — including flags.
The IDF has indicated it plans to stop collecting the flags, unless some need to do so arises.
The commander of the military’s Samaria Brigade ordered troops earlier this week to leave the flags be, for the time being.
الشباب في حوارة شغل جكر
العلم الفلسطيني صار شغلهم الشاغل للجيش الاسرائيلي كل يوم الصبح بصبحوا يشيلوا العلم وبالليل الشباب بترجعه
تياسة مستوطن نزل العلم قبل يومين وصار الموضوع تحدي وفش مجال للتراجع pic.twitter.com/UrbpJsyvHe
— Rafat Darawsheh ???????? ???? (@rafatdarawsheh) May 19, 2022
In a related incident, an off-duty soldier was arrested on Tuesday night after attempting to remove a Palestinian flag in the area, the Kan public broadcaster reported.
He was found to be carrying several weapons and ammunition, and the IDF only said he was detained “on suspicion of serious weapons offenses.”
פרסום ראשון: חייל צה״ל בחופשה נעצר אתמול בחווארה בחשד לעבירות נשק חמורות. החייל, טבח בכפיר, עוכב על ידי כוח מילואים לאחר שהוריד דגל פלסטין, ובחיפוש ברכבו נמצאו אמצעי הלחימה האלה: pic.twitter.com/8XHmw1ZlSq
— רועי שרון Roy Sharon (@roysharon11) May 26, 2022
Generally, such scenes are rare in the West Bank though, particularly in Palestinian towns that are under the Palestinian Authority’s administrative control.
The Huwara segment of Route 60 is one of the few highways used by Israelis in the West Bank that doesn’t lie in Area C, which is under Israeli administrative and security control. It is in Area B, which is under Israeli military control but Palestinian civil authority.
Israeli negotiators of the Oslo Accords deemed security under the Area B-designation sufficient to protect settlers traveling through the town, though nearby settlements have grown significantly in the three decades since.
As a result, the government is currently paving a bypass road for settlers that goes around Huwara and is located in Area C.
Earlier this year, Jewish extremists hurled stones at Palestinians while parading through the town nearby, injuring three people and smashing several cars.
Over the past two weeks, Israeli forces have been documented acting against those waving Palestinian flags. This was most notably seen during the funeral of slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, when troops attempted to snatch flags off of her casket and from funeral participants in the course of violent intervention that included rushing oat and hitting some of the pallbearers.