This past summer I drove once again from Jerusalem to Nabi Saleh, a small village in the West Bank known for its ongoing resistance to Israel, and this time I noted the landmarks along the way: Ofer military Prison, built like a fortress, grey and menacing where countless Palestinian political prisoners are held because of their resistance to Israel, often without trial. Modi’in Elit, an Israeli city built for orthodox Jews only, many of them new immigrants, on lands that belong to the neighboring village of Bil’in. A sign along the way reads: “By Order of the Military Commander, Israelis and Israeli Vehicles are Prohibited from Entering the Palestinian Villages Along This Road.”
I ignored the warning sign and continued along “this road” which winds through the hills of the central West Bank and I could see terraces covered with olive trees and grape vines. I noted also, that although many of the Palestinian towns and villages along this road are known the world over as centers for non-violent resistance to Israel, and although Israelis are prohibited from entering them, they remain unmarked. Only the Israeli settlements are clearly marked. I note the contrast between the heavily stone-built Israeli settlements and the natural landscape, and it seems as though the settlers are on a mission to rape the country and leave it scarred.
Earlier that week I called Bassem Tamimi and asked if I could come to Nabi Saleh on Thursday and stay there till after the weekly protest on Friday.
“You want to spend the night in Nabi Saleh and return home Friday after the protest?”
“Ahlan wa sahlan, you are welcome.”
It was late in the afternoon on Thursday, when I reached the village and the heat was unbearable. The thermometer in my mother’s little white Suzuki showed 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 Fahrenheit). We sat in the living room, Bassem’s kids were playing around in another part of the house and from time to time the youngest, Salaam, would come in to complain about his older brother.
There are about 500 people in Nabi Saleh and I asked Bassem if he knows when people came to live in this beautiful corner of the West Bank. He smiled and told me the following story: The village elders were sitting in the square by the mosque one day when someone walked by and asked one of them how long he had been living there. “I don’t know” he replied, “but I do remember sitting right here one hot afternoon, when all of a sudden Adam showed up looking for Eve.”
I reminded Bassem of the day I visited him about a year and a half earlier. It was my first visit to the village and I wasn’t sure if he would remember. He had spent 13 of the last 18 months locked up in Ofer prison. But as we spoke I could see that it was coming back to him.
“Yes, it was a very violent day. I remember exactly, and I remember you came with Ali Abu Awad from Beit Ummar.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Ali disagrees with the stone throwing” Bassem added.
“Yes, he does.”
Ali is a Palestinian friend of mine, well known and admired among activists; He is a veteran peace activist himself from the town of Beit Ummar near Hebron.
“My father was Matti Peled, I said, “Do you know who he was.”
“Matti Peled,” his face lit up. “Yes, of course.”
Bassem told me that in the aftermath of the second intifada a few veteran Palestinians with a history of resistance got together to offer people a different way of resistance. “The Al Aqsa intifada did not give an answer to the occupation and we needed a different way to resist. The non-violent resistance was what we chose.” “But” he continued, “we don’t all agree on the issue of the rocks.” “The rock is a symbol of the Palestinian struggle.” Bassem said to me. “I don’t think we can tell our youth they have to accept the army presence and the violence that army inflicts on them and sit and do nothing. Throwing rocks at the army is not violence.” Other Palestinians disagree.
We talked about the protests and the struggle against Israel for many hours. “The Israelis that join us here at the weekly protest,” he said “I don’t see them as outsiders or as just expressing solidarity. I see them as partners.” We agreed that in the end the best solution, is a single democracy where we can live together in peace.
Since the non-violent protests began a couple of years ago, the village gets regular late night raids and young boys and men are arrested, beaten and tortured regularly. Much of this is recorded and made available on youtube by Tamimi Press and others. But Bassem told me that resistance and the IDF brutality are not new to Nabi Saleh. “The resistance in the village began before the first intifada.”
Bassem also told me that in 1993, as the Oslo accords were being signed in Washington, DC and many of us naively believed Israel intended to make peace, he was arrested and tortured. “They shook me so hard that I was in a coma for several days. When I awoke I was paralyzed, I didn’t know if I would ever get out of bed. Once I was released I found out that my only sister was killed by Israelis.”
In the evening, we sat outside and I had dinner with Bassem and his family. Later on people came for coffee and fruit and stayed to talk until late into the night. One serious problem the people of Nabi Saleh have to face daily is the ongoing violence from the settlers who live in the settlement Halamish. It was built on Nabi Saleh land and its residents are hardcore, fanatical, religious Israelis and they are particularly violent. The night before I arrived they burned a row of olive trees just below the village.
I was awakened the next morning to the sounds of shots being fired. I got dressed quickly and stepped out. Bassem and his wife and a few neighbors were already outside. In the distance we saw a cloud of tear gas and heard the shouting of soldiers and saw young Palestinians running on the hills. “That’s another thing that is different in Nabi Saleh” Bassem explained. “The resistance is not limited to certain days or times, our youth engage the army regularly.” It was only 6:30 am and the heat was already oppressive. “There is no wind to blow away the tear gas.” Bassem said sounding worried, “if it stays like this, it will make things very difficult during the protest.”
After mid day prayers we set off on the march. I counted about 150 adults and thirty kids. Soldiers waited for us on the road just down from the village, but we walked in the other direction, up the hill, overlooking the main road and Halamish.
Within minutes countless soldiers in full combat gear began climbing the hill towards us. They were moving very slow and very steady. It had to be over 100 degrees by that time and the climb was steep. Having been an infantry soldier in the IDF myself, I knew that for the soldiers in their gear it had to be hell. How stupid can they be? Regardless of what nonsense they were being told, they were not saving the world from tyranny or terror, just chasing a few unarmed peace activists.
The soldiers were closing in on us so we moved back towards the village only to be met by Israeli border police, also armed to the teeth. One of them placed his hand on me and yelled out: “this one is detained.” So many soldiers, so much effort and all they had to show for at the end of the day was me and a few other Israeli activists, whom everyone knew would be released by the end of the day. One soldier, a woman with long brown hair, looked at me intensely, and through the plastic cover of her helmet she said: “you are Jewish, you should be a shamed to be here.” “Why?” I asked, “Jewish people should always fight injustice.”
As I and the others were all driven away by armored military vehicles I could see that the village was swarming with hundreds of soldiers running around, pretending to be in a combat zone. Luckily for them, there was no enemy, no army for them to fight. As Hezbollah proved in 2006 when they humiliated the Israeli army, Israeli soldiers are only good for fighting unarmed civilians, they can’t handle a serious fighting force.
As the army jeep with me in it drove away, I recalled that six months earlier 28-year-old Mustafa Tamimi was shot and killed on that very road. He died from his wounds on December 10, 2011, my fiftieth birthday. He was shot in the face with a tear gas canister during the Friday protest as countless people were watching. The jeep from which the shot was fired was easily identifiable, but it simply drove away. As I looked at the soldiers around me all I could think was: “which one of you murdered Mustafa Tamimi?”