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The Ongoing Repression of Palestinian Protesters

Posted: 12/18/09 12:03 PM ET

On a pitch black early December night, seven armored Israeli military jeeps pulled into the driveway of a home in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Dozens of soldiers, armed and possibly very scared, came to arrest someone they were probably told was a dangerous, wanted man - Abdallah Abu Rahmah, a high school teacher at the Latin Patriarchate School and a well-known grassroots organizer in the village of Bil'in.

Every Friday, for the past five years, Abdallah Abu Rahmah has led men, women and children from Bil'in, carrying signs and Palestinian flags, along with their Israeli and international supporters, in civil disobedience and protest marches against the seizure of sixty percent of the village's land for Israel's construction of its wall and settlements. Bil'in has become a symbol of civilian resistance to Israel's occupation for Palestinians and international grassroots.

Abu Rahmah was taken from his bed, his hands bound with tight zip tie cuffs whose marks were still visible a week later, and his eyes blindfolded. A few hours later, as President Obama spoke of "the men and women around the world who have been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice" upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Abu Rahmah's blindfold was removed as he found himself in a military detention center. He was being interrogated about the crime of organizing demonstrations. In occupied Palestinian territories, Abu Rahmah's case is not unusual - about 8,000 Palestinians currently inhabit Israeli jails on political grounds.

After more than fifteen years of fruitless negotiations, which have done nothing more than allow Israel to further cement its control over the West Bank, even the moderate and mainstream West Bank Palestinian Authority now refuses negotiations with Israel. Despairing over the futility of perpetual negotiations, figures like Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and West Bank Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are openly supporting a resumption of the strategies of the first Palestinian Intifada. This being a grassroots uprising, saying "Those who have to resist are the people [...] like in Bil'in and Ni'ilin, where people are injured every day."

Yet, Israel's occupation, like any other military operation, speaks only the language of violence and brutality when dealing with Palestinians, whether facing armed militants or unarmed protesters.

Fearing a paradigm shift to grassroots resistance, Israel reacted in the only way it knows - with violence and repression. And what places could better serve as an example than the symbols of contemporary Palestinian popular struggle - Bil'in and the neighboring village of Ni'ilin, villages where weekly demonstrations are held against the Wall, with the support of Israeli and international activists?

Israel's desire to quash the popular resistance movement is no hidden agenda, nor should it come as a surprise. Recent acts by the Israeli army point directly to this goal.

Over the past six months, 31 Bil'in residents have been arrested, including almost all the members of the Popular Committee that organizes the demonstrations. A similar tactic is being used against protesters in the neighboring village of Ni'ilin, which is losing over half of its land to Israel's wall and settlements. Over the past eighteen months, 89 Ni'ilin residents have been arrested.

Israeli lawyer Gaby Lasky, who represents many of Bil'in and Ni'ilin's detainees, was informed by Israel's military prosecutors that the army had decided to end demonstrations against the Wall, and that it intends to use legal procedures to do so.

The Israeli army also recently resumed the use of 22 caliber sniper fire for dispersing demonstrations, though use of the weapon for crowd control purposes was specifically forbidden in 2001 by the Israeli army's legal arm. Following the killing of unarmed demonstrator Aqel Srour in Ni'ilin last June, Brigadier General Avichai Mandelblit, the Israeli army's Judge Advocate General, reiterated the ban on the use of .22 caliber bullets against demonstrators, to no effect. In addition to Srour, since the beginning of 2009, 28 unarmed demonstrators were injured by live ammunition sniper fire in Ni'ilin alone.

Unlike the battlefield, in the realm of public opinion, where political struggles are decided, gun-toting soldiers cannot defeat a civilian uprising. Israel is clearly aware of this fact. The night raids on the villages, detention of leadership and shear brutality on the ground are all a desperate and failing attempt to nip the renewed wave of popular resistance in the bud.