Back in August the photograph below of the arrest of Nariman Tamimi by Israeli soldiers who tore her away from her two daughters went viral and I knew I had to visit her village in Palestine. Nabi Saleh is famous for its active resistance to occupation, and for the crushing Israeli response, and the truth is I had been afraid to go before. But the photograph made me ashamed of that fear. Last Friday I spent most of the day in the village, and it was a bad day, according to villagers. Israeli soldiers came repeatedly into the streets to fire tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators.
Israeli soldiers arrest Nariman Tamimi, as her daughters try
to prevent the arrest, August 24, 2012.
(Photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
At 5 o’clock 11-year-old A’hd Tamimi was struck by a rubber bullet in the arm and carried, crumpled, into the house where I was sitting. She wasn’t crying. A journalist came limping after her, hit in the thigh. By then the Israelis had shut off power to the village and a tear gas attack had set a neighbor’s yard on fire and soldiers were firing live rounds into the air to intimidate people. I felt trapped. All I wanted to do was leave.
But a group of popular committee members then decided to go off through the village to deal with the fire and tend to a woman who’d been hit in the head by a rubber bullet. They told me to come with them.
“Where is the safest place right now?” I said. “With us,” an older man responded, as we ran through the streets and up a hillside.
Nabi Saleh is about 15 miles northwest of Ramallah in the hills of the West Bank. Its population is 550, many of them from one family, the Tamimis. It is on a picturesque hillside that could be in Italy or California, except the lands on the next hillside to the south are colonized by Israelis. Nabi Saleh now has a fine view of serried red rooftops in a settlement called Halavahs, and right next to Halamish is an army base that serves to protect the settlement. Driving past, it looks like an armed camp. There are Israeli flags out on the road, and large gates with men standing around with semiautomatic weapons.
Because Friday is demonstration day, and Israel is trying to sew up Palestinian resistance, the road to Nabi Saleh was blocked by soldiers when my minibus arrived last week. Two women were asking the soldiers to be allowed to walk to the village. They were barred from doing so. The minibus had to proceed about 8 miles around to the west and north, entering Nabi Saleh from the rear.
As I got out, I stepped into a war zone of young men throwing rocks at faraway soldiers and the soldiers firing teargas canisters and rubber bullets back. The salient was a gas station at the main intersection in the village. I scurried out of the way of the chaos, but a woman came walking up the road to me with a big smile. She was my host, Manal Tamimi, and might have been inviting me into her garden. This is normal, she said. Her husband Bilal came over. He wore wire rimmed glasses and a yellow press vest, had cameras around his neck. He documents the weekly demonstrations, and he was due to go out the next day to Sweden to a conference on journalism. He would be flying out of Amman. He is not permitted to use the Israeli airport, 30 or so miles west of where we were standing.
The teargas action soon moved to the fields, and Manal took me out to the hilltop to observe. We joined 30 or 40 villagers looking down on the demonstration, along with a dozen internationals. Far below us boys were throwing rocks at the soldiers and the soldiers were set up on the road in front of Halamish firing back at the boys. Near us other boys collected rocks to be passed down to the boys below.
Manal pointed out Nabi Saleh’s lands that have been taken by the settlement on the opposite hillside. Just behind the soldiers’ trucks was a little green oasis of trees. This is Nabi Saleh’s spring. The villagers demonstrate by trying to get to it but they’re not allowed. The settlers have renamed it Meier Spring. Some of the water goes into their big swimming pool. They have water all the time. Nabi Saleh only gets water 12 hours a week, Manal said. And the olive trees on the hillside behind the spring– all taken from the village. Manal also pointed out the handsome white amphitheater built by the settlers for outdoor performances, not far from the swimming pool.
I always reflect when I’m in the occupation that if New Yorkers were subjected to these oppressions, we would be up in the hills with guns. Of course Palestinians have tried violent resistance, but they have failed to repulse the occupier and been labeled “terrorist” into the bargain. So in an effort to win the world’s good opinion, they have turned to non-violent resistance–and documenting that resistance on the internet, and seeking the attention of internationals. Bilal Tamimi has a youtube channel and a website and a facebook page and says proudly that googling Nabi Saleh turns up a million hits, where a few years ago it only produced references to the prophet Nabi Saleh.
Of course the demonstration is not really nonviolent. The boys throw rocks. When the soldiers’ trucks came through the village later, I heard rocks clattering off the doors and fenders like hail. The popular committee regards the rocks as symbolic gestures of the right to resist. It feels more than symbolic. But I can’t imagine that the elders would be able to stop the boys, who are enraged and want to do something, and if the villagers merely walked to the spring every week and were arrested, they would not create the same drama that masked boys hurling rocks with slings do. The provocation gains rubber bullets and tear gas canisters and international attention.
After years of this routine, now contained to a few villages by the Israelis, some people write off these demonstrations as a show. Certainly that was the theme of The New Yorker story on Palestinian demonstrators written by a former Israeli soldier, Shani Boianjiu. And no doubt the demonstration is a form of resistance theater. The boys play a role, the soldiers play a role. No one is supposed to get really hurt, though people inevitably do. But so what. It is a form of theater that is highlighting real and outrageous conditions. The soldiers are protecting an illegal settlement, condemned by every country on earth but the U.S. And it is the demonstrators who get arrested and fired upon? Any means of dramatizing this enormity makes sense to me.
It was a bad day at Nabi Saleh Friday because as dusk approached, the soldiers came into town and fired tear gas and rubber bullets at close range. I heard that they were incensed by the rockthrowers, that a soldier had been hit in the head. I was on a rooftop as they fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets into an adjoining lot at the boys. It was terrifying. The soldiers stopped their truck and shot the canisters at close range, not at an arc. These things have great force. When one canister hit a telephone pole, the pole shook as if a car had struck it, the wires swinging. No wonder that a soldier firing a teargas canister at close range killed Mustafa Tamimi on the road just below us, more than a year ago.
The other large factor at work here is the audience, internationals. Brave people come a long way to support the resistance, and some are able to gain attention for the demos back home. Manal talked with an Israeli woman who comes often. But there were few Israelis there last Friday. The Israeli soldiers intimidate solidarity activists by declaring Nabi Saleh a closed military zone, and threatening activists with arrest.
Still these rural people carry on. And the international attention gives the villagers hope that they will one day prevail, and that the settlement will be removed from their land and their spring returned to them. Iyad Tamimi, a member of the popular committee, described an inspiring visit in October by a delegation from the Martin Luther King Center for non-violent change. Two dozen veterans of the civil rights movement came to Nabi Saleh, and because they didn’t want to be exposed to tear gas and rubber bullets, sat in chairs on the roof to observe. It was not theater to them. It was their own history. Most of them were crying, Iyad said; they told him this is exactly what they experienced in the south. The visitors assured the villagers that Nabi Saleh will prevail, as the civil rights demonstrators in the south prevailed.
Still, the village is under tremendous pressure. We will never leave, Manal said. This is our life. Yet dozens of them have been imprisoned just for demonstrating, Popular committee leader Bassem Tamimi has been in prison for over a year; and shutting down the village’s power that night seemed a possible preface to nighttime raids to arrest boys. Iyad’s son was imprisoned, for 5 months, at age 15. He came back changed. Some interrogations took place that were against Israel’s own rules about how to handle children. What do the Israeli expect to learn from these people? Who threw the stones? Who organized the resistance? All of Palestine supports this little village in its weekly show of strength.
The ring of fear Israel has set up around Nabi Saleh is another way of containing the resistance. Internationals are afraid to go give support. But when I told Iyad that I had been afraid to come, he looked at me uncomprehending. This is normal for us, he said. This is our life. We are never safe.
Never safe, never afraid– a definition of valor.
It was night and the village had at last settled down. The small fire at the neighbor’s house had been put out, the soldiers had left. Little A’hd Tamimi came down the street with a bandage on her arm. The main road was reopened to a burst of normal traffic. For a moment I felt safe. A boy passed us jingling sweatshirt pockets loaded with the shells of live rounds that the soldiers had fired into the air so as to frighten people. I took one as evidence. It appeared to be a .22 from an M16.
But when I got to the Qalandiya crossing an hour later, I realized I would be passing through metal detectors and the soldiers at the checkpoint would pull me aside. “Where did you get this? What were you doing?” I tossed the shell away in the dark.