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.

Suhaib Salem/Reuters
Palestinian protesters shout slogans during a protest near the Erez border crossing between the northern Gaza Strip and Israel on June 5, marking the 44th anniversary of the start of a 1967 Middle East War.

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.

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.

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.

His statement and demeanor seemed inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. He told the judge, "I respect your thinking and logic."

"I practice passive civilian resistance… I believe in the legitimacy of this protest.... I organized these peaceful demonstrations to defend our land and our people," he said. "In spite of it all, I do not have hatred in my heart toward anybody."

Prospects for a new Palestinian uprising

Though a mass demonstration has yet to materialize in the West Bank, protests in villages like Nabi Saleh are attracting interest from Palestinians in larger cities.

"Suddenly, after Egypt and Tunisia, [Palestinians] have hope again," says a European diplomat who was on hand at the Ofer Prison for the formal charges against Tamimi. "They are thinking that maybe they can make change and have an impact."

But there are several factors weighing against a new Palestinian uprising. The public in the West Bank is still exhausted from the armed uprising during the previous decade an is enjoying a measure of economic relief after Israel’s army removed roadblocks and eased up movement. Moreover, the Palestinians remain demoralized because their internal political rift between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank.

Tamimi's wife, Nariman Tamimi, says that the although the Arab Spring gives activists in Nabi Saleh optimism and a boost in participation, she acknowledges that widespread protest will be an upscale battle.

"The memory of repression is still fresh on Palestinian skin," she says. "Every Palestinian mother has a prisoner son. They are asking, 'How can we keep sending our children to jail?' "

But Israel is nervous about the protests nonetheless. The expected United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood this September is most often cited as a possible inflection point for mass protests. But other symbolic struggles – like Nabi Saleh villagers’ battle over a disputed water spring – could provide the trigger.

Mr. Baskin says that although Palestinians are well below the boiling point, it is impossible to know how the next uprising will start.

"Often these kinds of struggles are sparked by something unexpected and unpredictable, and that could light the whole field."

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