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In West Bank land dispute, non-violence scores a victory

Palestinians demonstrate against the expansion of the nearby Jewish settlement of Halamish as Israeli forces stand by in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh near Ramallah, Friday, Dec. 16, 2011.

AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed/AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed

For two years, the people of Nabi Saleh, a Palestinian village north of Ramallah, have protested against the creeping annexation of their farmland by the nearby Israeli settlement of Halamish.

The land grab dates back several years, but it was in 2009 that the settlers fenced off the village's vital spring, which is on land privately-owned by Bashir Tamimi, a member of Nabi Saleh's oldest family.

Gershom Gorenberg, author of two books on the history of the Israeli settlements including The Unmaking of Israel, published in November, says documents exist that show the borders of Halamish, established in 1977, and that these documents clearly show the land on which the spring sits is not legally part of the settlement.

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Israeli courts will undoubtedly rule that the land has been illegally obtained, Mr. Gorenberg says, and will almost certainly order the settlement to return the spring and other lands to the village. But all that will take years.

In the meantime, Israeli Defence Forces are defending the settlers as they occupy this land. That defence has meant that every Friday, when many of Nabi Saleh's young residents protest by marching from the centre of the village in the direction of the spring, they are met by several dozen soldiers who order the residents to turn around and go back.

And every Friday, these young residents, often joined by a number of Israeli and international supporters, refuse to turn around and are hit with a barrage of tear gas, water canons, and a foul smelling liquid dubbed "skunk," until they have no choice but to turn back.

From the beginning, Nabi Saleh residents were determined to stake their claim but also to show they were not using violence that would justify fire from the Israeli army.

"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," said Bassam Tamimi, a nephew of the spring's owner, last year. "We want to send a message to the Palestinian people and the Israeli people, that there is a different model of resistance – nonviolent resistance," he explained.

For the most part, they succeeded. Whereas protests in other locations often involve rock throwing and counter violence – scores of young men often bring slingshots to the Bilin protest, for example, aiming to use them against the soldiers – Nabi Saleh was different.

But week after week of being met by tear gas and skunk took its toll and, of late, some of the vanguard of protesters were resorting to rock throwing.

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I was not at the protest of December 9, but photographs show several young men hurling rocks at soldiers who took cover in armoured military vehicles.

It was on that fateful day that Mustafa Tamimi, 28, another nephew of the spring's owner, chased after one of the retreating military jeeps. Video recordings show the back door of the vehicle opening and the barrel of a gun emerging and firing a single tear-gas canister straight at Mr. Tamimi about 10 meters from the jeep.

The hard rubber canister hit the protester flush in the face and he fell to the ground. He was taken to hospital in Israel, but died within hours from internal hemorrhaging.

This past Friday, December 16, I did attend the Nabi Saleh protest, not sure what would happen. I witnessed a demonstration of remarkable discipline and non-violence.

About 150 people – mostly local villagers, with a small number of Israelis and internationals – many wearing white T-shirts with pictures of the slain Mustafa Tamimi, marched down the road from the village as they always do until they arrived about 20 meters from a line of Israeli soldiers standing outside their armoured vehicles. The soldiers had tear-gas-firing weapons at the ready, and a white tanker truck with a water canon on top right waited behind them.

Using a megaphone, an IDF unit commander told the protesters, in Hebrew, to turn back. They stood their ground, chanting "the people want their land returned" and other such phrases.

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After about five minutes of this stare-down, without the protesters committing a single act of violence or taking another step forward, the soldiers opened fire with the gas, taking care to fire the canisters in high arcs and to the side of the people.

The black rounded rubber canisters littered the hillside and the wind blew the gas back toward the protesters, engulfing them in fumes.

The people fell back, coughing, then regrouped and marched back toward the soldiers. Again and again they advanced in a scene reminiscent of Egypt's January 28 Day of Rage when protesters first captured Cairo's Tahrir Square.

The water canon had no greater effect, though the foul-smelling skunk did succeed in sending perhaps half of the crowd running.

When some of the protesters broke off to take a direct, overland route toward the spring, soldiers in the rear were moved to intercept them.

At only one point did a lone woman pick up a rock and hurl it toward the soldiers down the hill from the advancing protesters. Two other women walking with her immediately told her not do this.

About a dozen young protesters, half of them women, many waving Palestinian flags, withstood the gas and about 20 arrests, and made it to the bottom of the hill where about 50 meters and a single line of soldiers stood between them and the spring.

There the two sides stood until the late afternoon.

The spring was not retaken, but it was close as the protesters ever had gotten. It was an important victory for non-violence, especially in the wake of the death of a villager a week before, and a testament to the organizers who kept these determined people in line.

In the face of such opposition, no security force has a good answer.

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