Darkness descended on Nabi Saleh and the fading of the light brought with it bone-chilling cold. At the village entrance, an endless line of cars stretched in both directions, their headlights glimmering from afar. The line crawled forward at an agonizing rate, but everyone knew better than to honk or try to pass. Leaving the village is an ordeal of patience, lasting an hour or more. The Border Police manning the checkpoint wore black scarves against the fierce cold, which also masked their faces. One of them signaled with a small green flashlight, indicating that the next car could advance to the barrier. Figures clad in darkness, tension running high.
The Border Police personnel and soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces checked the license of every driver and the trunk of each car at length, for what seemed an eternity. It’s the return of the checkpoints. No one, of course, could imagine they actually have anything to do with security. Would a wanted man or a terrorist, who can see the checkpoint from the high hill on which the village stands, wait in line to be caught? Would he really believe the soldiers wouldn’t discover the explosive device hidden in the trunk? The checkpoints are back, to hassle and abuse the Palestinians, tyrannize them and remind them who’s in charge here.
Two loutish Border Police troops and a third who smiled cordially, did their work. After a few minutes, the green light from the checkpoint flashed and another car slowly advanced to go through the ritual. This has to be the slowest drive in the world, fueled by fear of the troops – who are liable to start shooting over any momentary misunderstanding. This week Nabi Saleh returned to prior days, and the checkpoint at the entrance to the village is once again up and operating almost all the time. It’s not clear why. The residents of five villages pass through this checkpoint every day, and now it was early evening, when the workers return home.
Across the road shone the lights of the Halamish settlement; its residents quickly bypassed the logjam at the entrance to the neighboring Palestinian village. It doesn’t concern them. It’s only intended for Palestinians. In that day’s edition of the freebie paper Israel Hayom, Dr. Shuki Friedman, who teaches law at the Peres Academic Center in Rehovot, explained that, “In Judea and Samaria there is no blatant discrimination between Israelis and Palestinians on the basis of origin and with prejudicial intention.” In the lengthening line at the exit from Nabi Saleh, opposite the settlement of Halamish, one could only laugh at the comment, and also feel shock at the thought that there are people in Israel who are learning law from teachers of that level.
Nabi Saleh is a small, hilly village next to Ramallah, population about 600, all from the Tamimi family. Near its entrance is the home of Manal and Bilal Tamimi, where an exhibition of used IDF ammunition greets visitors on a table near the door. Almost every home here has an exhibition of grenade casings as decoration. Manal, 48, is in charge of international PR in the Palestinian Communications Ministry; Bilal, 54, is a graphic designer at the Palestinian Ministry of Education. They drive together every morning to their respective ministries, in Ramallah. They have three sons and a daughter. Last Friday, they almost lost 20-year-old Mohammed, whose giant portrait on a poster dominates the wall above their front door. The poster was put up last August, when Mohammed was released from prison.
Mohammed and his brother Osama, 23, were arrested 10 days apart in January 2017. Osama was sentenced to a nine-month prison term, Mohammed to 20 months, on the usual charges of throwing stones and membership in an illegal association. Their home is unabashedly a Fatah bastion, with photographs of Yasser Arafat in every corner. One of them is particularly captivating: In it, the Rais, or president, holds a 2-year-old Mohammed in his arms. Manal and Bilal are a very political couple, imbued with a sense of mission; they are among the leaders of the struggle in this village of struggle, where there’s a freedom fighter in almost every home. There is a clear division of roles between them: Bilal relates what happened and Manal provides the ideological justification. Bilal has filmed the demonstrations in the village almost since they began in 2009.
As in other villages involved in the struggle, a settler takeover of the local spring was what sparked the protests. Every Friday for nine years, there were demonstrations; most of the villagers, along with several dozen Israeli and international activists, took part. Jonathan Pollak, one of the most determined and persistent of the Israeli activists, has been in police custody for some weeks for refusing to post bail of 500 shekels (about $150), after a complaint was filed against him by a right-wing group. In Nabi Saleh, he’s called “Jonathan Tamimi” in admiration.
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Two years ago, the village’s popular committee decided to end the regular demonstrations. By that time, the village had already buried four protesters, three from Nabi Saleh and one from a neighboring village; 22 villagers were incarcerated in Israel and 15 had been wounded by live fire. Those are brutal numbers in a small village like Nabi Saleh. Quite a few of the village residents fell ill over the years from the voluminous amounts of tear gas used by the IDF and the Border Police. Following one demonstration, the villagers collected the casings of 1,500 tear-gas grenades fired by the troops. During a funeral we attended, a dense cloud of tear gas hung over the whole village, threatening to choke everyone present.
The village decided on a time-out. After nearly a decade of weekly demonstrations, they lowered their flags and put them in reserve for special events (like last Friday’s protest following publication of the Trump plan). When village resident Ahed Tamimi, a relative and friend of Mohammed (and now a law student at Bir Zeit University), was arrested in December 2017 after slapping an IDF officer, world attention was again focused on the village for awhile. About an hour before that incident, Ahed’s 15-year-old cousin, also named Mohammed, had been shot by Israeli forces not far from her home, leaving his head disfigured and his face badly scarred. The disabled teen was later re-arrested on suspicion of stone throwing. A few months later, in June 2018, Izz al-Din Tamimi was killed. He is Nabi Saleh’s last victim, for now.
Manal rejects the allegation that the village has capitulated. “If they had broken us, we would be afraid, and we are not afraid,” she says. “When the settlers approach the village, the whole village goes into the streets. When the army arrives, the whole village is outside. One time an officer told us: ‘The Tamimis never sleep – when we arrive during the night they are waiting for us.’ We are continuing the struggle, but in other ways.”
At the very beginning of the demonstrations, Manal recalls, they were hesitant about having Israelis join them. In the other villages of the struggle – Budrus, Kaddum, Bilin and Na’alin – Israeli activists were marching shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinian demonstrators. But for Nabi Saleh it was difficult, says Manal. “Since the start of the occupation [in 1967], we lost 22 village residents who were killed by Israel. The only Israelis we knew were the settlers and the soldiers. We didn’t know any others. But over time we discovered a human side to Israeli society. Not everyone is a soldier or a settler. Not everyone refuses to acknowledge our existence. Israelis started to join our demonstrations and also to come to weddings and engagement ceremonies." From then on, Israeli activists took part in the weekly protests.
"We refused to enter into any dialogue with the settlers," Manal continues. "We have no dialogue with their mentality. I know that if they had an opportunity to kill us, they would do it.
“One time we went for a picnic at the spring,” she continues. “Immediately, settlers arrived and began attacking us with stones. One kid arrived with an M-16 rifle and aimed it at us. I asked his father, who was standing next to him: ‘Why is your son armed?’ He said, ‘I taught him that you have to shoot every Palestinian, before he kills you.’ I asked him: ‘Do you know why my son is not armed? Because I taught him that this is our land. You believe in the gun, and are educating your son to hate, I believe in justice and therefore I feel more secure than you. We are educating our children to resist, but to stay humane.’ And then someone threw a stone at me, and the conversation ended.”
Two weeks ago, on Friday, January 31, the village again held a protest demonstration, this time to express its anger at the Trump plan. Bilal took his camera to a demonstration in Bilin, while Manal was home with the flu. Their son Mohammed, who works in the amusement park in the new Palestinian city of Rawabi, not far from the village, went to demonstrate with his brother, Osama, before heading to Rawabi. Throwing stones and torching tires, the demonstrators descended toward the highway and the Halamish settlement; the soldiers lay in wait and with gunfire and tear gas tried to push them back to the village, then chased after them through the streets. This time, too, the soldiers dispersed among the village houses and fired freely. The villagers say they fired more live rounds than ever before, speaking of hundreds of shell casings that were collected.
Bilal called Mohammed and Osama from Bilin, and heard from them that the confrontations were at their height. Mohammed headed for the gas station at the entrance to the village, where a driver was to pick him up and take him to the amusement park. But in the face of heavy firing by the soldiers, he and other young people retreated toward the hilly section above Ahed Tamimi’s house.
In the meantime, Bilal had returned to the village and spent a few minutes filming the events. Then he returned home, which is when he heard people shouting that Mohammed had been wounded. Someone called Manal and told her that Osama was wounded as well. Bilal rushed out and saw Mohammed on his feet, a bloodstain on his chest, and quickly bundled him into a car. Osama, who was standing next to him, was lightly wounded in the leg by shrapnel. They sped to the clinic in the town of Salfit. Manal drove with her daughter-in-law in her car, but was so agitated that she got lost on the way. From Salfit, Mohammed was taken to the new private Istishari Hospital in Ramallah. The physicians found a live bullet lodged on the left side of his chest, millimeters from the aorta. There was no way to remove the bullet without endangering his life. The bullet remains in his body.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit this week stated, in response to an query by Haaretz: “On Friday, January 31, 2019, there was a violent disturbance adjacent to the village of Nabi Saleh, in the area of the Ephraim Territorial Brigade. During the disturbance, demonstrators threw stones, Molotov cocktails and burning tires at IDF soldiers. In response, the soldiers employed crowd-dispersal measures and also fired [at the protesters]. “
The IDF Spokesperson disregarded the question it had been asked, namely, why do the soldiers use live fire to break up demonstrations?
That was the second bullet that struck Mohammed and remained in his body. Exactly five years earlier, on the same date, January 31, 2015, he was hit in the leg by a 0.22 bullet that exploded internally; the fragments lodged close to a central artery and the physicians decided to leave them there. X-rays show clearly the bullet in Mohammed’s chest and the fragments in his left leg. It was actually his third wound. When he was 12, a teargas grenade was fired at his legs while he sat on a fence in the village. He was hospitalized for 12 days because of complications from the wound. Manal notes that most of the wounded in the village have been shot on the left – more dangerous – side. In fact, she, too, has bullet fragments in her left leg, from when she was shot in a demonstration in 2015. Twice she saw demonstrators killed next to her – Rushdi Tamimi and Mustafa Tamimi. Mohammed says in reply to a question that he will not return to the demonstrations. But his mother, who looks disappointed at the reply, immediately notes that when he was released after 20 months in prison he also said he would never go back to the protests.