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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.

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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.

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"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.

On Sunday, a military tribunal indicted a leader of the Nabi Saleh demonstrations, Bassem Tamimi, who was detained more than two months ago. The military prosecutor charged the Palestinian activist with inciting youths to throw stones and tear gas at soldiers during weekly demonstrations in the village.

Rights activists who sympathize with Mr. Tamimi acknowledge that he is a leader of local confrontations with soldiers who block access to the spring claimed by the villagers of Nabi Saleh. But they say that he practices nonviolence and has encouraged youths to seek creative ways of confronting soldiers without hurling stones – a long-time symbol of Palestinian popular "resistance" to Israeli military rule.

The case against Tamimi, they say, hinges on the testimony of a 14-year-old from the village who was arrested at gunpoint who said Tamimi organized the kids into local brigades. The military declined a request for comment from the Monitor.

At the indictment hearing, Tamimi pleaded not guilty and rejected the authority of the military court. "Despite claiming to be the only democracy in the Middle East you are trying me under military laws [...] that are enacted by authorities which I haven’t elected and do not represent me," he said, before being cut short by the judge.