The Middle East Channel

When Montgomery comes to Nabi Saleh

On March 24, the Israeli government arrested Bassem Tamimi, a 44-year-old resident of the small Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh, which is just west of Ramallah. Tamimi was arrested for leading a group of his neighbors in protest marches on a settlement that had "expropriated" the village's spring -- the symbolic center of Nabi Saleh's life. 

Tamimi was brought before the Ofer military court and charged with "incitement, organizing unpermitted marches, disobeying the duty to report to questioning" and "obstruction of justice" -- for giving young Palestinians advice on how to act under Israeli police interrogation. He was remanded to an Israeli military prison to await a hearing and a trial. The detention of Tamimi is not a formality: under Israeli military decree 101 he is being charged with attempting "verbally or otherwise, to influence public opinion in the Area in a way that may disturb the public peace or public order." As in Syria, this is an "emergency decree" disguised as protecting public security. It carries a sentence of 10 years.

The arrest of Tamimi marked only the most recent escalation in Israel's campaign to suffocate the Nabi Saleh movemen: in the two months prior to his arrest, Israeli officials detained more than 18 Nabi Saleh youths; over the last two years, nearly 15 percent of Nabi Saleh's population has spent time in Israeli jails; half of those arrested have been under the age of 18 and the youngest of them was 11. But what is extraordinary about the Nabi Saleh campaign is its effectiveness. The protestors are trained in non-violent tactics. "Our strategic choice of a popular struggle -- as a means to fight the occupation taking over our lands, lives, and future -- is a declaration that we do not harm human lives," Tamimi has said. "The very essence of our activity opposes killing."  

Tamimi's arrest has not stopped the movement. On the morning of April 8, about 80 villagers marched from Nabi Saleh's main street towards the settlement. As they crossed into some nearby fields, they were attacked by IDF soldiers with teargas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades. The villagers fled, but then reorganized themselves, defiantly linking arms in front of the soldiers. Again, the IDF responded harshly and, by that evening, had arrested six villagers. But these are small incidents in a continuing battle. The protests go on day after day, week after week -- and have over the course of the last four years.

Nabi Saleh does not stand alone. The non-violent protests actually began eight years ago in small communities near Israel's security wall, then took root in the villages of Mas'ha and Budrus; the protests have now spread to towns and villages across the West Bank, encompassing mass rural movements from Hebron in the south to Nablus in the north. The protests have involved dozens to hundreds, and on rare occasions, thousands of villagers. But pride of place for this widespread non-violent resistance movement belongs to Bil'in, a village that (like Nabi Saleh) has seen much of its land taken over by a settlement. The leader of the Bil'in protests is Abdallah Abu Rahmah, the head of Bil'in's Popular Committee Against the Wall. Like Tamimi, Abu Rahmah has trained his young activists in the principles of non-violence, sparking movable protests that the IDF has found impossible to suppress.  

Abu Rahmah, a high school teacher at the Latin Patriarch School in Ramallah, began organizing Bil'in's protests in 2004, even as the violence of the Second Intifada was beginning to wane. Every Friday after prayers, Abu Rahmah would lead a group of Bil'in residents on a protest march towards a local settlement -- and every Friday his march would be intercepted by the IDF.

In one demonstration, an IDF sniper used a .22 caliber rifle to disburse the protesters, killing a Palestinian boy. Twenty-one unarmed demonstrators, among them five children, have been killed in non-violent West Bank demonstrations since the beginnings of the movement. In the village of Nil'in in 2008, American activist Tristan Anderson was paralyzed after an IDF soldier fired a high velocity tear gas canister at his head from a distance of 15 meters. In December of 2009, IDF soldiers raided Abu Rahmah's home, arrested him for incitement, and sentenced him to 12 months in prison. At the end of his sentence, the IDF asked his sentence to be extended for another four months, describing Abu Rahmah as "dangerous." The court agreed.

Abu Rahmah has become a symbol of the protests. While in prison, he smuggled letters to his supporters, including one -- written this last February -- that has become a kind of "Letter from Birmingham Jail" of the movement. "Ofer is an Israeli military base inside the occupied territories that serves as a prison and military court," he wrote. "The prison is a collection of tents enclosed by razor wire and an electrical fence, each unit containing four tents, 22 prisoners per tent. Now, in winter, wind and rain comes through the cracks in the tent and we don't have sufficient blankets, clothes, and other basic necessities. Food is a critical issue here in Ofer, there's not enough. We survive by buying ingredients from the prison canteen that we prepare for our tent. We have one small hot plate, and this is also our only source of warmth."

One month after penning this letter, Abu Rahmah was released, but it's only a matter of time before he's arrested again -- and shut inside one of the half-dozen Israeli military prisons and administrative facilities that dot the West Bank. Israeli tactics, the mass arrests, and the use of live fire have been condemned by a long list of human rights organization. But not by the United States.

Just how much do the Bil'in-Nabi Saleh protests worry Israel? One widely circulated article from the popular Israeli political daily Yediot Ahronot described Naji Tamimi, who helped his cousin Bassem organize the Nabi Saleh movement, as "a pied piper" who "fans the flames of violence." (Despite the fact that not one Israeli has died as a result of the protests.) The article went further: "Even though it hasn't been proven, it seems that sources connected to the Palestinian Authority are directing the activities and that the funds paid out to the youths is coming from donations from organizations registered abroad." Not proven -- because it's not true. In fact, while Fateh and Hamas officials monitor the protests (PA officials have come to Nabi Saleh -- before scuttling back to their offices in Ramallah), they have been careful not to interfere in them. They view the protests as a credible and powerful movement that is better left alone. Hamas leaders agree. "We wish them well. We hope they succeed. We support them. We are staying away," a senior Hamas official says.

A group of international activists have been helping the Nabi Saleh protests. Jonathan Pollak, a 29-year-old native of Tel Aviv, has found himself at the center of the protests -- and has written about them extensively. "I grew up in a progressive home," he says, "but I don't think that anyone in my family could be described as a radical. I came to Nabi Saleh and realized I had to help. What's happening here is just wrong." Joseph Dana, a New York native and journalist, works alongside Pollak. He came to Israel to find his Jewish identity. "I haven't found it," he says. "What I found instead was an army that arrests children."

Pollak, Dana, and other international activists are working to bring attention to the Nabi Saleh movement and have escorted diplomats from Europe through the village. A few low-level American diplomats from Jerusalem have come to Nabi Saleh, but no senior American officials have visited. "The international community has been asking for years where the Palestinian nonviolent movement is," Joseph Dana says from his home in Jerusalem. "Well, here it is. And the Americans are nowhere to be found."

Pollak and Dana are being modest. While the events at Nabi Saleh and Bil'in have been largely ignored in the United States, they have sparked a simmering conflict between Palestinian villagers and Israeli settlers. The IDF has taken the side of the settlers, arresting hundreds of young Palestinians (many of them minors) and using (in one case) the testimony of a 14-year-old boy to condemn the movement's leadership. "They kept him up all night, shouting at him," Dana says. "He was frightened, alone. Finally, he did what they wanted. If you can imagine, Israeli soldiers subjecting a child to mental torture." While the world's attention has been diverted by the events in Tahrir Square, Israeli officials have struck back against what may well be the greatest threat to their settlement project -- condemning non-violent protesters as "terrorists" and standing aside while settlers have taken more and more land from unarmed and defenseless people. Israel has poured increased funds into countering the protests, deployed more and more soldiers to stop them, and escalated the arrest of its leaders -- breaking down the doors of their homes in pre-dawn raids designed to frighten and intimidate them. Nothing has worked.

Unfunded and unnoticed, Bassem Tamimi, his cousin Naji, Abdallah Abu Rahmah, and a handful of others have organized and trained battalions of young men and women in the art of non-violent resistance. Bassem Tamimi's arrest has not stopped the protests. They are growing, and spreading. The movement is now in the hands of Bassem's wife, Nariman, who vows to fight on. She has already spent time in an Israeli jail, but remains undeterred. "There is no knowing what the future holds," she says from her home in Nabi Saleh, "but our path is clear and so is our goal. We know well that it is possible to achieve it, and we will continue to fight for it. To a great extent, the question of our victory is also one that should be directed to the American people and their government -- are you on the side of justice and victory, or on the side of continued oppression?"

The Arab Spring has seen revolutions come to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria. In each revolution, U.S. President Barack Obama has praised the crowds seeking democracy and freedom. Again and again he has talked of the need to fight extremist violence. He has paid homage to the young men and women who have brought freedom to Egypt and Tunisia. He has supported those defending themselves in the streets of Benghazi, Sanaa, and Damascus. His talisman has been non-violence, his pole star the American civil rights movement. In Cairo, in June of 2009, President Obama linked the Palestinian quest for freedom to the American civil rights movement. "Palestinians must abandon violence," he said. "Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed." He was right. So why is it that now -- when finally, Montgomery has come to Nabi Saleh -- he chooses to remain silent?

Mark Perry is a military and political analyst and author of eight books, including Partners In Command, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace, and most recently Talking To Terrorists.

AFP/Getty images

The Middle East Channel

Mideast news brief: U.S. warns its citizens to leave Syria as crackdown escalates

U.S. warns its citizens to leave Syria as crackdown escalates 

The U.S. State Department has begun evacuating some of the embassy staff in Syria as well as all embassy dependents, and has issued a warning to all other U.S. citizens in Syria that they should leave, due to "uncertainty and volatility" in the country. As the United States and the U.K. consider a new set of sanctions against Syria -- such as freezing the assets of top Syrian officials -- U.S. officials admit it will be difficult to exercise leverage on a country that is already under so many sanctions. In 2006, the U.S. banned transactions with the Commercial Bank of Syria; in early 2007, it banned transactions with four government-related research organizations after it accused them of working on proliferating WMD; the Obama administration now struggles to find new effective sanctions. Syria intensified its crackdown on Monday when it sent in eight tanks into the city of Dara'a. With nearly 400 people killed since protests began in the country about five weeks ago, this week could be signaling a brutal new phase as international leaders condemn the "completely deplorable" violence.

Headlines 

  • Yemen's opposition accepts a deal for the transfer of power, allowing protests to continue until President Saleh resigns. 
  • Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi approves the use of Italian air force in NATO's air strikes in Libya.
  • Bahrain expels Iranian diplomat over alleged ties to a "spy ring," escalating tensions between the two countries.
  • New poll finds that Egyptians are full of hope about their future, and free and fair elections this fall.
  • Turkey FM says Israel should be careful not to repeat its Gaza flotilla mistake, and has a responsibility to lift its blockade on the Strip.

Daily Snapshot
 

Yemeni protesters pray during a demonstration calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down immediately in Taiz (Taez), the second most-populated city of Yemen, south of Sanaa, on April 25, 2011 before police and 'gunmen in civilian clothes' opened fire with live rounds and tear gas, wounding 50 protesters, 25 with bullets, and leaving at least 250 suffering from breathing problems, witnesses said (AFP/Getty Images).

 

Arguments & Analysis

 

'Egypt's liberals are losing the battle' (Gideon Rachman, Financial Times)

"Some liberals argue that the pursuit of justice and the exposure of the crimes of the old regime are crucial to the establishment of a new Egypt. They also fear that the "deep state" of the Mubarak era will re-emerge and thwart change, unless it is exposed and pursued through the courts. These are legitimate arguments. But an overconcentration on the past risks losing the future. The political dangers are heightened by a serious deterioration in the economy. Tourism is a crucial industry, but many tourists seem too frightened to go to Egypt at the moment. Visiting the Pyramids in Giza last week I virtually had the place to myself. A lot of foreign and domestic investment is also on hold. Inflation is running at 18 per cent and food price inflation is over 50 per cent. In an effort to maintain stability, the government is pouring money into subsidies for food and energy. But the budget deficit is now about 12 per cent of GDP and foreign reserves are falling, as the central bank struggles to support the currency. Some fear that Egypt is heading for a balance-of-payments crisis. An International Monetary Fund-style austerity regime in an already poor country will not be a great advert for the post-Mubarak order."

'Iran: Authority deficit' (Ali Ansari, Chatham House)

"Conspicuous consumption,mounting inflation, an economy driven by patronage, speculation and rents; all this would be bad enough, but the government is also confronted by a serious crisis of trust. As Iranian economists protested publicly several years ago, perhaps the most serious damage being done is the loss of social capital. People are no longer willing to accept or tolerate what they are being told. You simply cannot expect to fool all of the people all of the time. One might have thought that this message had come through loud and clear in the aftermath of the last elections: people were no longer willing to believe what they were being told and were fed upwith being treated as fools. This reall ywas the heart of the political crisis in authority facing the government. We may choose to label it 'democratic' or a 'Green movement', but at its core the problem was not complicated. It was about human dignity and the rights of the citizen, above all to be taken seriously by those who seek to govern them. In this acute sense, the change in attitudes does reflect a profound democratic turn in the Iranian public. But it is one the government has chosen to contemptuously ignore. This insult to injury has only exacerbated and prolonged the crisis of authority between state and society."

'The epic Arab battles reaches Syria' (Rami Khouri, Daily Star)

"For some...the Assad regime [is] the Middle Eastern equivalent of the banks that were too big to...collapse during the American economic crisis three years ago, because the spillover effect would be too horrible to contemplate. The specter of sectarian-based chaos within a post-Assad Syria that could spread to other parts of the Middle East is frightening to many people. Yet many, perhaps most, Syrians indicate with their growing public protests that they see their current reality as more frightening - especially the lack of democracy, widespread corruption, human rights abuses, one-party rule, economic and environmental stress, excessive security dominance and burgeoning youth unemployment. The epic battle between regime security and citizen rights that has characterized the modern Arab world for three long and weary generations enters its most important phase in Syria in the coming few weeks, with current Arab regional trends suggesting that citizens who collectively and peacefully demand their human and civil rights cannot be denied."