By Abed Qusini
QUSRA, West Bank (Reuters) - 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 U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations with Israel.
Yet with several alleged settler assailants in Israeli police custody after they were extricated from Qusra village by the army, and no immediate repercussions for the Palestinians involved, the incident may signal a new toughness by the Jewish state in tackling violent ultranationalists.
The seized Israelis, who appeared to be aged between 15 and 30, were held in an uninhabited house near Qusra after Palestinians said settlers had rampaged on local farmland.
"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. Some bled 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 triggered by an Israeli police evacuation of an unauthorized building in the nearby settlement of Esh Kodesh.
Some ultranationalist settlers have responded to Israeli government efforts to rein them in with so-called "price tag" attacks on Palestinian property. The vandalism and harassment are designed to bog the authorities down in sectarian strife.
Seven of the Israelis removed from Qusra were taken for questioning by police ahead of possible criminal charges, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. Three of them required medical treatment. Another three Israelis were arrested for throwing stones at Palestinian cars nearby, Rosenfeld said.
By nightfall, there were no further actions by Israeli forces in Qusra, a military spokeswoman said. Previous such incidents prompted curfews and sweeps for Palestinian suspects.
Israeli television stations led evening news reports with footage of the alleged settler assailants being led out of Qusra by troops, who were helped by some Palestinians while others leveled final blows at the bedraggled detainees.
Roy Sharon, settlements reporter for Channel 10 TV, described the scene as "an unprecedented ceremony of humiliation for the far-right" in Israel.
An Esh Kodesh settler disputed the Palestinian villagers' and Israeli army's accounts of the Qusra incident, 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".
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.
Palestinians want to create a state in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip - an enclave ruled by Hamas Islamists opposed to the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
(Reporting By Abed Qusini in Qusra and Noah Browning in Ramallah, Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Mark Heinrich and Mike Collett-White)