Nabi Saleh … The name of this little Palestinian village half way between Jerusalem and Nablus has resonated in my mind for years. Gotta go there, I’ve said to myself. Gotta go see how their weekly, anti-occupation protests unfold, up close and personal.
A few years ago I visited Bil’in, another Palestinian village just outside Ramallah, where popular protests have also been taking place each Friday. Courageous folks, for sure. But their demonstration seemed sadly futile: marching up to the section of Israel’s Apartheid Wall blocking them from their farmland, where illegal Modi’in Illit settlement now sits, only to get rained on by high velocity tear gas canisters, rubber-coated bullets and skunk water fired by police safely perched on the top of the wall, as amused settler kids watch from a nearby hill. Save for the most fearless, rock-hurling shebab, everyone takes cover, or flees.
This past Friday, I found out that popular protest Nabi Saleh-style is a very different affair. Little Nabi Saleh, population 500 (all from one family — the Tamimis), has had a reputation for militant protest since late 2009, when their spring and adjacent agricultural lands were stolen by Halamish settlement, a stone’s throw to the south. Several villagers have been killed in the course of these demonstrations, including Mustafa Tamimi, hit in the chest by a high velocity tear gas canister. I had no idea how militant peaceful, popular protest could be.
Last Friday, a hundred villagers ranging in age from nine or ten to senior citizens pointed fingers, shook fists and waved flags in the faces of heavily armed police. They pushed the cops back, sitting down on the pavement when the teargas began to fly.
The protest began, as is the custom, after noontime prayers. By early afternoon, a large crowd had gathered in the parking lot outside Nabi Saleh’s mosque. The mood was festive. Folks mingled in circles, flags flapping in the breeze.
Then the march began, down the narrow road leading to the coils of barbed wire, yellow steel gate and observation tower blocking access to the main drag where Jewish settlers drive. Next to the lovely spring that once was Nabi Saleh’s, beneath the hillside of olive trees that Nabi Saleh once harvested, now controlled by neat and tidy, red-roofed Halamish settlement.
At the vanguard of the march, two familiar faces: Eleven year-old ‘Janna Jihad’ — the ‘World’s Youngest Journalist’, reporting into her smart phone — and sixteen year-old lioness Ahed Tamimi, topped by an improbably wild explosion of wavy blonde hair.
Down the road the villagers marched, a dozen members of the media racing to keep up. Around the bend, eight Israeli police came into view: helmeted, automatic weapons at their side; two of them armed with still and video cameras; the commander shouting into a megaphone, warning the crowd to cease and desist.
To borrow a famous click bait line — I never imagined what would happen next.
Surely, protesters would slow down and halt a prudent distance from the cops. If they didn’t, tear gas would be hurled, shots fired, and injuries sustained.
But no, protesters marched right up to the police. For almost half an hour, they faced down the cops, nose to nose. Shoulder to shoulder the cops stood, helmet visors up, guns and tear gas grenades at their sides, passively receiving the abuse hurled in their faces. Media rushed this way and that, searching for prime purchase to capture the mayhem.
At times police were surrounded, separated from their jeeps by media and protesters. Several small boys walked over to cops hanging back in front of their vehicles, attempting to engage them in conversation.
Back and forth the police commander marched, between the jeeps and ‘front line’, occasionally tapping messages into his smartphone. This was the same guy who presided over the fatal shooting of young Saba Nidal Obeid on May 12, here in Nabi Saleh, a Palestinian medic told me. Today, the commander may have been minding his p’s and q’s.
At one point, the commander returned from a jeep with a Palestinian flag that had been seized, handing it back to one of the protesters.
Most incredibly, the crowd kept pushing the line of police back. With each few feet of retreat, the crowd cheered and chanted, taunting the police, sticking their fingers, fists and flags in their faces. The police remained calm. I tried to engage a few in conversation. “This must be really difficult for you,” I asked. No reply.
Then, the inevitable: the loud pop of a tear gas canister, a cloud of acrid, white smoke drifting through the air, and everyone flew, gasping for breath, covering their eyes. Others stayed put. If the cops could, so would they. One older woman sat down on the pavement, her harms crossed. Camera people rushed over to capture her sitting there.
But the protest was about to become less up close and personal. “Skunk truck!” an Israeli activist murmured, interrupting our interview, pointing to a large white truck driving up the road from Halamish settlement, where it’s based and apparently refuels. I had just recovered from a minor whiff of tear gas. My eyes and chest burned, but with a gentle northwest wind blowing away from Nabi Saleh, towards the police and their checkpoint, it could have been worse.
The sight of that skunk truck lumbering up the road towards me, plume of brown liquid rocketing from an armored nozzle on its roof, sent me sprinting up the hill — stopping twice, though, to snap quick shots of the approaching filth and then turn on my heels. Not bad for a 64-year-old. “Fuck!” I yelled, as a fifty meter-long fountain of putrid fluid arched into the blue sky and back down towards me. “Fuck!”
Thank G-d for the breeze, I said to myself, as I took up position next to a gas station near Nabi Saleh’s northern entrance road. There I watched as police and a few villagers stood their ground. Shebab took up positions along the road and on the hillside above, hurling rocks in their graceful, muscular ballet, an astonishing distance, and with great accuracy.
Three police sustained hits, Palestinian medic Achmed Nasser told me — one in the leg and two in the head. The commander got hit on the side of his head, and a young female cop took a rock in the face. Nasser offered to provide assistance, but police said they could handle the situation themselves. The young lady was taken to hospital.
If only the police withdrew, the protest would wind down, I thought. Villagers would likely not march down to the main road, much less into Halamish, where they’d certainly get shot by settlers, someone confided to me.
But police stayed put, and so did a handful of Nabi Saleh protesters stubbornly engaging them face to face, as shebab fired off relentless volleys of rocks, set fire to tires and pushed the burned out shell of a car down the road. A few women rushed into a field to block police sniper fire. Two villagers were hit by live and rubber-coated bullets [the latter two points reported by Ma’an News Agency].
Rather than wandering back down into the fray, I decided to play it safe and withdraw. All I needed now was to get struck by a “Two-Two” (the sort of live round that entered young Saba Nidal Obeid’s chest on May 12, piercing his heart and killing him).
I stood on the road beside the gas station, watching weary protesters trudge back home. Having failed to dampen their testosterone levels through high-octane popular protest, youths raced up and down the road on a bright yellow all-terrain vehicle, spinning wildly as they laughed, creating lots of bothersome noise.
Amidst the incongruous hubbub, I managed to chat briefly with young Ahed Tamimi. An intense and thoughtful young lady. “We have to be strong because if we are not like this they will kill us, and they will destroy our land,” Ahed told me. “When I go to the demonstrations I feel I’m more strong,” she added. “I’m not scared, because if I don’t go and tell the police go from our land they will kill us and they will come to the village. They will do a lot of things to kill us and make us not happy.”
Later, biding our time over coffee and sweets, waiting for a service taxi back to Ramallah, medic Achmed Nasser and I had a lengthy conversation about life, politics, popular protest, now-comfortable sixties-generation politicians versus disenchanted eighties-generation youth, and the future of self-determination in Palestine. Plenty of food for thought. Powerful enticement to dig deeper into this most amazing, seemingly permanent national struggle.
Earlier in the day, I spoke with village leaders Bilal Tamimi and his wife Manal, who’ve been leading and documenting protests here in Nabi Saleh for years (and have a large collection of spent Israeli ordinance in their home to show for it). Listen to our conversation here:
All images by David Kattenburg. A version of this article first appeared on David Kattenburg’s website Green Planet Monitor.