By GERSHON BASKIN : Jerusalem Post
A recent trip to the weekly demonstration in Nabi Saleh shed a new light on the IDF and its operations.
For months I have been hearing about disproportionate use of force by the army against weekly demonstrations in Nabi Saleh – a small pastoral Palestinian village northwest of Ramallah. Last week, I watched several YouTube videos filmed by activists in the village, providing vivid visual images of the forceful arrests of protesters by the army. I was disturbed because all of the clips showed how the demonstrations ended; none showed how they began. I was convinced that there must have been stone-throwing by the shabab in the village which provoked the violent army responses. So I decided I had to see for myself.
When I contacted the Israeli activists who regularly participate in the Nabi Saleh demonstrations, I was warned that it was dangerous and that there was no way to know in advance when we would get home. They also warned that there was a high possibility we would be arrested. I am 55 years old, and have been demonstrating since the age of 12. I have been in dangerous situations before, and was prepared for another one.
ON FRIDAY morning I was picked up from French Hill at 10:30. We drove on 443 until the Shilat junction, and turned toward the West Bank. We drove off the beaten settlers’ track through the Palestinian villages in the area. We then turned off the road and parked in an olive grove. From there, we began a trek of about an hour through the hills, finally arriving, after a steep climb, at the edge of the village. Every Friday morning the army seals off the area and prevents entry and exit for all.
The 500 residents of Nabi Saleh, all from the Tamimi family, are demonstrating against the continuous encroachment of the Helamish settlement on their land. Since 2009, Nabi Saleh has been demonstrating every Friday.
In that time, some 200 villagers have been injured, more than 40 percent of them children.
More than 15% of the villagers have been jailed, and about 10 homes face demolition orders by the IDF; the village is located in Area “C,” which, according to Oslo, is under full Israeli control (62% of the West Bank is in Area C). Nabi Saleh has not received the same fame as Bil’in, whose six-year weekly struggle continues with a great deal of international attention.
We arrived in the center of the village and were greeted warmly by the residents. In all, there were about 20 Israelis and 20 internationals, along with some 60 locals – boys and girls, men and women. When the noon prayers ended, everyone assembled in the village square. Carrying flags and chanting of freedom, we marched toward the main road, some 800 meters from the village entrance. After less than 100 meters, the army launched its first barrage of tear gas. Fired at the crowd from at least three points, dozens of canisters exploded all around us. I have experienced tear gas, but this was more potent than anything I had known. It lingers in the air, burns the skin, and stings your eyes so sharply that it’s impossible to open them; it penetrates your lungs and makes it hard to breathe. I ran as far away as I could, only to face another gas canister exploding next to me.
For eight hours, this went on. The army surrounded the village and gradually moved in toward the center. The crowd would reassemble in the central square next to the grocery store.
There they would hand out pieces of onion to breathe in and alcohol pads to combat the effects of the gas. Palestinian Red Crescent volunteers were there to help all who needed medical care.
At one stage the gas got into my eyes, and the pain was excruciating. I was brought into someone’s house, where I was fanned with a piece of cardboard. The owner of the house, Abed, a man of about 40 who used to work in construction in Tel Aviv, gently wiped my face and around my eyes with an alcohol pad. His wife then came and applied a slice of cold raw potato to my eye, which relieved the pain. They have certainly become experts in dealing with this.
Eventually the troops, which comprised about 50 soldiers, command cars, and jeeps from the Border Police and the paratroopers, took over the center of the village. Taking command of several houses around the main square, they set up command positions on the rooftops.
At this point, the demonstrators were sitting next to the grocery store occasionally chanting songs and slogans against the occupation.
Many of the chants were Palestinian versions of the chants from Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Not a stone was thrown at the soldiers, although some had been thrown from a distance earlier as the army entered the village; an act of anger more than any real aggression. The villagers are committed to and largely stick to a strategy of non-violence, even in the face of horrible aggression from the soldiers.
As someone who served in the army and was involved for years in the education of officers, I was amazed at the abuse of power, the lack of any real purpose, and the pure show of force for force’s sake demonstrated by our soldiers. There is absolutely no purpose to this aggression, and nothing to be gained by it.
At about 5 p.m. the brigade commander, with the rank of colonel in the paratroopers, and his counterpart from the Border Police decided they would declare the village a closed military area and announced that all had to disperse. I approached him at that point and appealed to his rationality – what is the point of arresting everyone, I argued? The answer I got was an order to move away.
Ten minutes later, they threw some 50 percussion grenades at the dispersing crowd, which stun your senses and your ears. I made a strategic decision to take out my Government Press Office-issued press card so that I could continue to document what I witnessed. I filmed throughout the day and posted segments of what I saw on my Facebook site. After the arrests of 11 Israelis and one foreigner, the army vehicles left the village once again, leaving about a dozen Border Police and paratroopers in charge. Standing under a mulberry tree, three paratroopers began picking the ripe berries and eating them. I approached them with the film running and asked who had given them permission to eat from that tree. Do you open refrigerators and eat the food when you enter the Palestinians’ homes uninvited, I wanted to know? Clearly embarrassed, they turned away in shame.
THE RESIDENTS of Nabi Saleh treated us to remarkable hospitality. Although exhausted from the Friday ritual of military attack every week for two years, they welcomed us into their homes.
A final show of force from the army came in the form of the “skunk.” After all had ended, the army came back into the center of the village and sprayed a ton of the most putrid-smelling liquid that any genius Israeli chemist could concoct.
They completely doused one of the houses that had offered us refuge, food and drink, and poured the remaining liquid on the village square. The odor was the worst I have ever smelled. In a sign of solidarity, villagers, Israelis and foreigners spent the next hour washing the entire house and the village square.
Filled with a spirit of solidarity, morality and justice, the 60 remaining demonstrators were invited to another villager’s home for a latenight dinner. The host family laid out salads, vegetables and rice. The villagers told us how much they appreciated our presence because, as they said, when Israeli activists are not there, the brutality of the army is far worse. What I had witnessed was more than enough to make me feel ashamed and angry, and committed more than ever to ending this occupation, which forces our children to run away to India and other countries in order to forget what they did during their army service.
The writer is the co-CEO of IPCRI, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (www.ipcri.org) and founder of the Center for Israeli Progress (http://israeli-progress.org).