Since the end of the second Intifada in 2006, campaigns of popular protest have flourished in villages right across the West Bank, as Palestinians face the ongoing threat of losing land to Israel’s separation wall and settlement expansion.
In December 2009 in the village of Nabi Saleh, 20 kilometres north of Ramallah, villagers began weekly demonstrations after the theft of the local water spring by settlers from the encroaching Halamish settlement.
Since then the villagers say the Israeli army has conducted over 70 protest-related arrests, with at least 20 of those in the first three months of 2011.
Earlier this year, following the release after 16 months of activist Abu Rahmah from the nearby village of Bil’in for organising demonstrations, Israeli forces arrested protest organiser Bassem Tamimi as well as his cousin Naji from Nabi Saleh.
Tamimi, 55, was arrested on 24 March in his home while preparing to host a delegation of European politicians. He has since been detained on charges of incitement, organising unauthorised processions, and disruption of legal proceedings. The last charge is based on his allegedly giving youth advice on their legal rights during police interrogations.
Last year, I met Tamimi while working as a journalist in the West Bank. During this time, I witnessed on separate occasions Israeli military jeeps enter the village to disperse unarmed protesters assembled in the centre of town using tear gas, sound grenades and similar anti-riot projectiles.
Tamimi was one of several locals to welcome Israeli and international media, diplomats and activists to the village, providing information on the town’s history and advice on personal safety during military incursions. He was also popular among locals, visiting village youths recently returned after being held in Israeli administrative detention.
During his arraignment last month in the Ofer military court in Jerusalem, Tamimi pleaded not guilty to all charges He said:
"Our demonstrations are in protest of injustice. We work hand in hand with Israeli and international activists who believe, like us, that had it not been for the Occupation, we could all live in peace on this land. I do not know which laws are upheld by generals who are inhibited by fear and insecurity…(but) I know what justice and reason are … I do not know if my actions violate your Occupation laws. As far as I am concerned, these laws do not apply to me and are devoid of meaning.
"These demonstrations that I organise … allow me to see people from the other side who believe in peace and share my struggle for freedom. Those freedom fighters have … put their hands in ours in peaceful demonstrations against our common enemy, the Occupation. We fight together for a better future for our children and theirs".
Tamimi rejected claims that he orchestrated and incited the demonstrations saying it is "bullets … bulldozers … tear gas and burnt houses" that lead people to protest.
Since his arrest, demonstrations have intensified in Nabi Saleh amid reports that Israeli military jeeps are conducting night raids into the village, shooting projectiles in the direction of homes.
At the centre of the case against Tamimi is a 14-year-old, Islam Dar Ayyoub, also from Nabi Saleh, who allegedly named Tamimi as having organised local youth into "stone throwing brigades" against Israeli soldiers during an interrogation that lasted more than five hours.
Human rights groups have urged the boy’s testimony be ruled inadmissible, saying his testimony was taken under threat of torture and without access to legal counsel. Dar Ayyoub was arrested in January this year at gunpoint for throwing stones after Israeli soldiers entered his family home at 2am in January.
The European Union has also questioned the charges, saying the right to peaceful protest is being severely abused in the West Bank and Israel’s "impunity for such (behaviour) is unacceptable".
"From what I have seen and heard from villagers, clearly it is a situation of great concern," said United Kingdom Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt during a recent visit to Nabi Saleh.
"I have seen film which appears to show Israeli Defense Forces acting in a very strong manner against peaceful protesters, against women and children. Some scenes are extremely disturbing and indicate activity, which is highly questionable, worryingly."
With a torrent of democratic reform sweeping the Middle East, arrest and the use of force are becoming less credible answers to the question of Palestine, and Israel’s inability to develop a non-military strategy for dealing with an increasingly global Palestinian protest movement will continue to face scrutiny.
Earlier this month, over 100 foreign nationals were detained and deported on arrival at Tel Aviv’s main airport and six Israeli citizens were arrested after they were suspected of taking part in pro-Palestinian demonstrations.
During the second Intifada, the demand from the Israeli leadership was a prerequisite of security before negotiations for statehood could begin.
Still, almost a decade since the end of that bloody period and Israeli policy toward Palestinian state has regressed, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying a two-state solution would leave Israel "indefensible" due to the presence of settlements.
In September, President Mahmoud Abbas will speak to the United Nations General Assembly and ask for recognition of Palestinian statehood based on the 1967 borders. If his call is successful, credit will be due to the peaceful protests that have changed global perceptions of the Palestinian struggle — and to the individuals and whole communities that suffered for recognition of their cause.
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