A tiny village with a big voice

It is noon on a Friday in the West Bank, and the summer sun is burning strong. The small village of Nabi Saleh, tucked away on a small hill north-west of the capital, Ramallah, stirs to life with the call for prayer from the village mosque.

As the prayers end, people gather in the shade of a nearby tree. This Friday, as on any other Friday since 2009, Nabi Saleh’s men, women and children prepare to march towards the village’s water spring.

The girls are wearing colourful dresses and are wrapped in Palestinian flags. In the past, people have turned up in clown outfits, masks and superhero costumes. They could have been easily mistaken for a group heading out on a family picnic.

No picnicBut this is no picnic. The people of Nabi Saleh are protesting against the theft of their lands, the loss of their water source and against the Israeli military occupation.  On the other side of the fence waits the Israeli army.

The spring has been out of the villagers’ reach since 2008. It was taken over by the nearby illegal Israeli settlement of Halamish, explains Saleh Hijazi, Amnesty’s Campaigner on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

“The spring was once used by the villagers for farming,’ he says. ‘Now it’s a tourist site, open only to settlers”. Saleh points out the settlement’s rows of white buildings on the next hill. “Halamish has been encroaching on lands belonging to Nabi Saleh, and another Palestinian village called Deir Nidham, for years.”

Saleh also points out the nearby Israeli army base, and the army jeeps parked by the spring and at the entrance to Nabi Saleh.

Three broken camerasThe demonstrators leave the tree’s protective shade and begin marching down the road, chanting slogans and holding placards.  Saleh, who has been visiting this place for years, explains: “The soldiers are waiting with tear gas launchers and stun grenades.  They start using them, usually aiming directly at people and their houses, as soon as the protesters reach a certain point.’

‘If the demonstration carries on after that, the army starts using rubber-coated metal bullets and, in some cases live ammunition, against peaceful demonstrators.”

‘The army sometimes also sprays villagers’ houses with canons of ‘skunk’ water, which leaves a bad, lingering smell. They also spray it inside people’s homes and on bystanders.”

Along the road, the villagers march alongside activists who have come from around the world to show their solidarity and support.  Bilal Tamimi, his children at his side and a camera over his shoulder, smiles and welcomes them to Nabi Saleh. His camera has captured the villagers’ struggle for years, like Emad Burnat did for the Oscar-nominated documentary Five Broken Cameras, about Bil’in, another Palestinian village.

Bilal records the villagers’ persistence, their defiance, and the tragedies that have befallen their people.  So far, he has three broken cameras. At least one was hit by a rubber-coated metal bullet.

Young lives lostSince the demonstrations started in 2009, the village has lost two of its young people. Mustafa Tamimi, 28, was the first, killed in December 2011.

“That day, the army was using excessive force and some people responded by throwing rocks at the army jeeps as they were leaving,” says Saleh. “Then a soldier in the last jeep to leave opened his door and launched a tear gas grenade directly at Mustafa’s face from a close distance.” Mustafa died in hospital two days later.

As the demonstration continues down the hill, Saleh points to the spot where Rushdi Tamimi, 31, was shot by live ammunition in November 2012. He too died in hospital days later. “We have also seen hundreds of injuries caused by rubber-coated metal bullets, to people’s upper body and face, including children.”

Rushdi was the brother-in-law of Bassem Tamimi, another leader of the struggle, who was previously jailed by Israel for taking part in the demonstrations. Today, Bassem tells a young journalist about the importance of demonstrating peacefully. Bassem is at the demonstration with his children, but his wife, Nariman Tamimi, a prominent activist, is not.

Men and women, shoulder to shoulderNariman – pictured on the stamp image above – is not permitted to participate in the protest because the Israeli authorities have placed restrictions on  her movement on Fridays –  she must either stay within the confines of her house or leave the area entirely during the hours of 10.00 am to 5.00 pm. Instead of protesting, she welcomes a constant stream of activists and well-wishers with small cups of strong black coffee.

“Nariman and other women in Nabi Saleh are the forefront of this struggle,’ explains Saleh. ‘Here, women and men stand shoulder to shoulder, in the face of constant harassment by the army.’

Back at the demonstration, the children stay under a tree, chanting and singing through a megaphone as the others continue down the hill towards the army. Soon the army launches tear gas grenades and white clouds of smoke cover the hillsides.

Come together and say ‘enough’“It is very important that we show solidarity with the brave human rights defenders of Nabi Saleh “, says Saleh”. We need to come together and tell the Israeli authorities to stop harassing them.

“We need to insist that they stop using excessive force against demonstrators. And hold soldiers accountable for the deaths, injuries, and damage of property they are causing.

“Our voices, solidarity and actions will show all the villages holding regular peaceful demonstrations against the military occupation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, that they are not alone.

“We need to tell the Israeli authorities: enough. You are no longer facing a tiny village on small hill. You now have the entire Amnesty movement to reckon with.”

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