There's something happening here

April 23, 2010

In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict

Water trickles quietly down the rock, sending grasshoppers skittering to safety as it flows into two small ponds at the foot of the hill. Fields of stubble glisten in the valley below. A gentle wind breezes by. It’s an enchanting landscape, but the abiding tranquillity is just an illusion. The waters of the spring are pure, but nothing here is clean.

Like a rising fountainhead, the battle for this spring has thrust another Palestinian village into what has become known as the “white intifada.” For the past four months, the residents of the village of Nabi Saleh, accompanied by left-wing activists from Israel and abroad, have staged demonstrations over the spring, which settlers have appropriated for themselves. One more piece of stolen private land – this time for a spa in Halamish, once known as Neve Tzuf, a settlement in Samaria.

The Israel Defense Forces, of course, didn’t waste any time in declaring the spring a closed military zone on Fridays. Signs put up by the Civil Administration’s staff officer for archaeology now prohibit entry into what has been designated an “antiquities site.” On one sign, someone scrawled: “No Arabs allowed,” and also, “The Lord is the king.” Dozens of Stars of David have been plastered on the white agricultural building in the Palestinians’ fields at the foot of the spring – the settlers’ handiwork.

They’ve also come up with a name for the Palestinian spring, accompanied by a memorial plaque at the entrance: “Meir’s Spring, in blessed memory of Meir Segal, a founder of Neve Tzuf, a man of faith and deed, possessing the virtues of grace and humility, lover of the Land of Israel, who fought for its well-being and clung to its soil.”

Armed with the virtues of grace and humility or not, the settlers took it upon themselves to install tables, camping benches and lean-tos at the site; one table is bound to a tree with an iron chain. There is also a barbecue set up and the remnants of a hafla, a large feast, with an empty orange juice bottle lying nearby. Yet another picnic site in the large and promised land, recommended for use on Shabbat and holidays. “Meir’s Spring,” always and for all time, it’s all theirs.

Only one minor detail has been overlooked: The spring lies in the heart of private land belonging to the inhabitants of the adjacent village, Nabi Saleh. The villagers, prevented from working the fields around the spring by the settlers’ threats – which are backed up by the army’s might – decided to launch a different, declaredly nonviolent struggle, through which they regularly attempt to return to the spring to reclaim their land. Dozens have already been wounded or arrested.

Every Thursday they gather in a kind of “cultural center” in Nabi Saleh to watch documentary films about the occupation and plan the next day’s demonstration. Every Friday they try to reach the spring and the fields – their fields – but are driven back by the IDF. After Budros, Mas’ha, Bidu, Bil’in and Na’alin – now Nabi Saleh, a small village, secular and moderate, has joined the circle of protest. And its residents are aiming to create a different model of resistance to the occupation, one that does not involve terrorism. “The Israelis themselves won’t respect us if we don’t fight the occupation,” says Bassam Tamimi, one of the fomenters of this impressive civil protest.

This is the story of a small village whose lands were plundered and whose residents decided not to take it lying down. It’s also the story of a village that decided to fight without arms. “Neve Tzuf, it’s all for you,” declares the sign at the entrance to the white, appallingly uniform Lego-like houses of the settlement that was built on village land and now wants the village’s spring too. “No to a Perestinian state,” another sign at the entrance asserts, as a nod to Israeli President Shimon Peres. And also: “For sale, two-family house, 101 square meters, plus 101 square meters of surrounding land.”

By the gas station at the entrance to Nabi Saleh, a bit of a stench hangs in the air. Keren Manor, an activist in the photographers’ organization ActiveStills and an employee of B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, explains that the lingering odor is from the “skunk bomb” the IDF used to disperse the demonstration the Friday before. The windows of a few houses were shattered by rubber bullets fired by soldiers.

Tamimi, 43 and a father of four, works for the Palestinian Interior Ministry. He is also trying to reshape the struggle against the occupation, though perhaps this is naive. By 2004, he had been placed in administrative detention – arrest without trial – 12 times. In 1993, he was shaken so violently by Shin Bet security service interrogators that he fell into a coma and was paralyzed for a month. That same year his sister, Basama, was killed when she went to the military court in Ramallah, where Bassam was being remanded in custody. An army interpreter pushed her down a staircase and she broke her neck and died, leaving five young children behind. But all of that, he says, was long ago. Now Tamimi is offering his village, and actually his entire nation, a new model of struggle.

The settlement of Halamish, which was previously called Neve Tzuf, was established in 1976 on the ruins of a British police station from Mandate times – but on land belonging to the village of Nabi Saleh. The name Neve Tzuf was disallowed by the authorities and changed to Halamish, but the settlement itself was permitted. When the first intifada erupted, Halamish expanded its territory and built a new fence, 100 meters from the first fence – all of it on land belonging to Nabi Saleh. A court petition resulted in the dismantling of the fence, but Halamish did not stop expanding. In the summer of 2008, the settlers seized control of the spring; they started to develop the site and even brought goldfish to the pool.

The land on which the spring is located actually belongs to Bassam’s uncle, Bashir Tamimi. Bassam recalls how the settlers would attack the villagers whenever they approached the spring. The settlers also uprooted and burned down olive trees around the pool.

The villagers began to organize themselves in order to support the spring’s owner and protect his property. They held their first demonstration on a Friday late last year.

“We said we had to launch a popular struggle to protect our lands. That is the best way to protect the land,” Bassam Tamimi says. “The settlers want to push us to commit acts of terrorism, but we will not let them. We do not hate anyone, we hate the occupation and we believe that we have a right to our land. “During the first demonstration we were attacked by soldiers, who used tear-gas grenades and rubber bullets to evict us from our land,” he continues. “The settlers stood on the hill with their firearms and watched. The soldiers did nothing to defend us when the settlers attacked. We even held olive branches to show that this was a peaceful demonstration, but on that Friday the settlers uprooted 153 of our olive trees.

At the second demonstration the villagers no longer agreed to carry olive branches. I think this is what the settlers want – for all of us to become Hamas and resort to violence. They are pushing us into that mode.” At the second demonstration the villagers were forced onto the road by the soldiers and were unable to reach the spring. During the third demonstration, some villagers were wounded or arrested. Bassam’s wife, Nariman – who happens to have been born the same year that Halamish came into being – was one of those arrested. She was released on NIS 10,000 bail. Since then they have demonstrated every Friday.

To date, 70 villagers have been wounded, 15 of them moderately or seriously; 18 young people, some of them minors, are being held in detention. At one recent demonstration, a 13-year-old boy, Ihab Barghouti, was seriously wounded when a rubber bullet was fired at his head from close range. At another, a settler from Halamish arrived at the fields on a tractor and started to work land that does not belong to him; the soldiers watched and did nothing. Since then, Tamimi says, the villagers have not been able to access the fields around the spring to work them. Last Friday, the villagers were kept from leaving the village to demonstrate.

“We will continue until we liberate ourselves from the occupation, until we achieve equality,” Tamimi says. They decided against establishing a popular committee to lead the struggle, so as not to create a pretext for the arrest of its members. “Every resident of the village is a member of the popular committee and we are all its chairperson,” this new local leader asserts.

What is their ultimate goal? “To remove the occupation,” Tamimi says, laughing. Seriously? “We want to create a successful model of civil protest, which will prove that we are not terrorists and that we are the owners of this land. We want to send a message to the Palestinian people and the Israeli people, that there is a different model of resistance – nonviolent resistance.”

The IDF Spokesman issued the following response: “The IDF Spokesman wishes to emphasize that there is nothing preventing the Palestinians from reaching the lands around the village of Nabi Saleh. Therefore, the claims that this is the reason for the demonstrations would appear to be unclear and puzzling. Moreover, the disturbances and violence in the area often take place parallel to the farm work.”

A spokeswoman for the Civil Administration stated in response: “Archaeological ruins were discovered close to the Halamish spring, and therefore any work liable to damage what was found is prohibited there. At the same time, and as was made clear to the Palestinians via civil coordination channels, entry to the area of the spring is permitted – and in cases where it was needed the Palestinians were provided an IDF escort to make this possible. The sign that was put up when the work began had mistaken content and was therefore removed and will be replaced in the next few days.”