Feeling winds of Arab Spring, Israel douses sparks of Palestinian uprising
The trial of Palestinian protest leader Bassem Tamimi underscores Israel's eagerness to prevent small-scale demonstrations from turning into a broader movement.
Ramallah, West Bank
As a Palestinian statehood push gains traction across the globe, Israel is facing the prospect of a broader Palestinian civil disobedience movement that could put the Jewish state on the defensive.Skip to next paragraph
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Until now, homegrown demonstrations in the West Bank have gained little traction. A weekly protest in the village of Nabi Saleh today, for example, drew only a few dozen protesters and was quickly shut down by soldiers firing tear-gas canisters.
But with popular protest sweeping Arab neighbors through the Middle East, some believe that such small-scale protests could spark a broader uprising – one that would potentially involve Palestinian refugees in neighboring countries and their Arab supporters.
If demonstrators were unarmed, such a movement would shift sympathy to the Palestinians and further isolate Israel internationally.
"Israel is aware that times are changing, and the pressures a civil uprising can create are higher, and they are very interested in nipping it in the bud," says Jonathan Pollak, an Israeli activist who has been actively involved in West Bank protests.
Unrest on multiple fronts
Israel's army has faced unrest on multiple fronts over the past month. On May 15, Palestinians and their supporters mounted unprecedented border protests in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria to mark the nakba or "catastrophe" of Israel’s independence.
On June 5, hundreds of pro-Palestinian demonstrators challenged Israeli soldiers at the border of the Golan Heights in the worst violence since 1973. Foreign activists, meanwhile, are planning to mount another flotilla to challenge Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip later this month – a repeat of an attempt last year in which the killing of nine demonstrators helped build international pressure on Israel to ease the blockade.
And the demonstrators today in Nabi Saleh, where they've been trying for months to march to a spring near the village that Israeli settlers had expropriated, were again thwarted by the military.
After having put down an armed uprising that began in 2000 and killed more than 6,000 Palestinians and 1,100 Israelis, Israel’s army has tried hard to stop the protests in villages like Nabi Saleh.
"I think [Israelis] perceive it would be the spark that would ignite the whole area," says Gershon Baskin, the director of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information who joined the protesters today. "It’s very difficult to have a response ... if the Palestinians do it in a serious way, and you have thousands of Palestinians marching peacefully toward settlements or toward Jerusalem."
Nabi Saleh protest leader indicted
In addition to confronting protesters on the ground, the military has also aimed to thwart protests by targeting leading activists. Israel’s military law in the West Bank gives the army strong tools to control public protest: any political assemblies with more than 10 people require a permit, exposing activists to jail terms of up to 10 years. Israel’s army can also keep detainees in jail for months without charges.
The army has arrested dozens of villagers, including minors, in Nabi Saleh alone.