Early in the morning a car packed with Israelis and internationals leaves Tel-Aviv for al-Nabi Saleh, a small village about 30 kilometers northeast of Ramallah in the central West Bank. Our objective is to observe and participate in the weekly Friday demonstration in the village. We leave very early because Israeli military forces have been sealing off all the entrances to al-Nabi Saleh by 9:30 am, hours before the demonstration begins. The occupation forces hope to deter people from outside the village – Palestinians, Israeli Jews, and internationals – from joining the demonstrations. We are not deterred. We park the car on the outskirts of the village in the same spot where the army randomly fired bullets into a parked car two weeks earlier, the reason I elected not to bring my car. It might be difficult to explain bullet holes, even to a sympathetic Palestinian rental car agency owner. We reach the village center by walking through its terraced olive groves. Since we are focused on avoiding the military checkpoints, we don’t have much time to appreciate the beautiful scenery and balmy weather. After a 20 minute walk we arrive at the home of Basim Tamimi, the leader of the Nabi Saleh Popular Committee. Basim is in Ramallah for the day, so we are welcomed by his wife, Nariman, their children, and several internationals who spent the previous night in the Tamimi residence. Everyone makes themselves at home – helping to prepare breakfast, playing with the children, watching TV, using the computer, or chatting in Arabic, English, and Hebrew. It is a pleasant and entirely natural social scene, except that its occasion is al-Nabi Saleh’s continuing struggle against the confiscation and occupation of its agricultural lands.
In October 1977, a month before Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s famous visit to Jerusalem to proclaim his desire for peace, the settlement of Halamish (pop. ca. 1,000) was implanted on the hillside opposite al-Nabi Saleh. Since then – in parallel with the never-ending “peace process” – Halamish has expanded from its original foothold in a Jordanian police fort to occupy nearly half the historic lands of al-Nabi Saleh. The remaining village lands are mostly on the north side of Road 465, which runs on the floor of the valley separating al-Nabi Saleh from Halamish.
In December 2009 settlers from Halamish expropriated the natural spring of ‘Ayn al-Kus on the south side of Road 465. Several weeks later, Halamish settlers burned down 150 of al-Nabi Saleh’s olive trees near the spring. The Halamish settlers did not receive authorization from any Israeli authority for these acts of aggression. Both the US government and the European Union recently reaffirmed that all settlement activity is illegal according to international law. But this does not impinge on the army’s mission to protect the settlers, whether or not their actions are “legal.”
The Popular Committee of al-Nabi Saleh has led the village in resisting the seizure of the spring and this latest round of land confiscation. It has organized demonstrations every Friday since Christmas Day 2009, some with over 300 participants – an impressive turnout in a village with a total population under 550. The residents of Nabi Saleh have been joined by people from neighboring villages, students from Birzeit University, Israelis, many of them affiliated with Anarchists Against the Wall, and internationals. The third weekly demonstration consisted entirely of women. Women’s political participation was encouraged by a women’s club formed in 2009 called “Budhur” (seeds), which promotes locally-based, sustainable development and mutual aid.
After noon prayers this Friday’s demonstration of about 50 people proceeds from the main square of the village through the fields of al-Nabi Saleh towards the illegally expropriated spring. More than 100 yards away from Road 465, the marchers are confronted by a squadron of border guards who declare the area a “closed military zone” and order them to leave. When they refuse to do so the soldiers begin shooting tear gas. In response, the village youth begin throwing stones at the soldiers, who then increase the volume of teargas. If the objective were simply to keep the demonstrators away from the road and from Halamish – a flimsy “security” argument in any case, since the villagers’ objective is the spring and not the settlement – it would have been possible for the soldiers to stand firm and prevent the marchers from going further. But the soldiers apparently want to punish the protestors for the crime of demonstrating on their own property. Another unit of border guards approaches the demonstrators from behind, trapping many of them in a teargas storm. Soon the soldiers chase the demonstrators and the Israelis standing in solidarity with them into the center of the village, where the soldiers commandeer the roofs of several houses so that they can spray teargas and rubber-coated bullets in all directions with impunity.
Several Israelis and foreigners take refuge in the home of Muhammad and Fatima, who support the demonstrations but have not participated in this one. We are almost instantaneously served tea while Fatima ventures into her courtyard to berate the border guards and encourage the young men and teenagers to be bolder. Soldiers notice Fatima and invade the courtyard. One of them points at us through the open front door and demands to know what we are doing in the house. Fatima answers, “They are our guests and we are drinking tea.” The soldiers kidnap Muhammad and take his ID card and permits, without which he cannot travel or work. One of them tells Fatima that Muhammad’s papers will be returned if she expels us from her house. She refuses. But another adult male tells her she must be realistic. We don’t want to add to anyone’s troubles, so over Fatima’s protests we leave and re-enter the teargas storm. The occupation forces, in an effort to break the solidarity of Israelis and foreigners with the people of al-Nabi Saleh, have undermined the legendary Arab tradition of hospitality, a pillar of the local culture. About an hour later, while the exchange of stones and teargas is continuing, Muhammad’s papers are returned.
As we are trying to avoid the teargas, ‘Ahmad Tamimi, a member of the Popular Committee, decides that this is a good time to give me a political overview of the situation. Although I wouldn’t have chosen this particular moment for the conversation, I listen as he explains, “The Popular Committee of al-Nabi Saleh is different from the other popular committees in the West Bank [because] we have a different understanding of the problem. It’s not the Wall, and it’s not the settlements. The problem is the occupation. If the occupation ends, the settlements will go.”
In fact, other popular committees do understand the bigger picture of the occupation. But most of them have been formed to organize locally-based popular struggle – often in collaboration with Israelis and internationals – against the separation barrier. Since there is no separation barrier in the vicinity of al-Nabi Saleh, the struggle here has always targeted the expropriation of village lands by Halamish and the occupation regime which make this possible.
The demonstration began to wind down around 3:30 pm, after nineteen-year old Rashid was hit in the back of his head by an aluminum tear-gas projectile. He fell forward on his face and was lying in the village square in a pool of blood with teargas wafting around him before a Palestinian and an Israeli, both trained in first-response, managed to call for a stretcher and bring him into a nearby house. An ambulance was summoned from a neighboring village. The Israeli forces delayed it for ten minutes before allowing it to enter al-Nabi Saleh. On exiting the village the ambulance was once again delayed at gun-point for an additional ten minutes. These delays more than doubled the time it should have taken to evacuate Rashid. The ambulance was accompanied to the hospital in Ramallah by two Israelis who later returned to al-Nabi Saleh and reported that the projectile did not break Rashid’s skull bones. He is expected to recover after a night in the hospital for observation.
The Israeli military has used the full array of its arsenal to repress the demonstrations at al-Nabi Saleh – rubber-coated steel bullets, percussion grenades, skunk bombs, teargas canisters of various kinds, including ostensibly banned high velocity projectiles, and live fire. The number of injuries to the head and upper body indicates that soldiers do not always shoot teargas in an arc or rubber-coated steel bullets at the lower body, as army regulations specify. On March 5, fourteen-year old Ihab Barghouti of nearby Beit Rima was shot just above his eye by a rubber-coated steel bullet. He was evacuated to Ramallah for emergency surgery and remained in critical condition for at least two weeks. Weeks later Ellen Stark, an American young woman volunteering with the International Solidarity Movement, was shot by a rubber-coated steel bullet at short range. Her hand was hit and broken. Altogether 120 demonstrators have been taken to the hospital for serious wounds, including a dozen cases of broken limbs. Forty-five villagers have been arrested during the last year, including Nariman Tamimi and her cousin Manal, who were arrested twice.
The harsh Israeli response compelled the women to withdraw from participation in the weekly demonstrations. They feared that their children were being traumatized. But this has not necessarily protected the women, especially Nariman, who remains active as president of Budhur. On October 26, in the morning before the weekly demonstration, soldiers surrounded Nariman’s house as she was hanging her laundry outside. When she shouted at them to go away, one of them came up to her and sprayed pepper spray in her face.
‘Ahmad Tamimi is a retired colonel in the Palestinian Protective Security Forces. In that capacity he participated in security coordination meetings with his Israeli counterparts. He reports that Israeli military authorities consider the popular resistance at al-Nabi Saleh a serious problem that must be eliminated. They haven’t been successful, and there is no sign that they will be any time soon.