How Not to Deal with Protesters: A Death in the West Bank

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Haim Schwarczenberg / AP

Palestinian protester Mustafa Tamimi, left, falls on the ground after being badly injured by a tear gas canister fired by Israeli troops during a demonstration in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, near Ramallah, Dec. 9, 2011. Tamimi, died in an Israeli hospital Saturday from severe brain damage.

The weekend offered a hard lesson in the nature of what passes for calm between Israel and the Palestinians living in the territory its army watches over. It was a lesson in two parts, one exploding in the sandy soil of the Gaza Strip, where the Israeli military exchanged fire with militants in the kind of clash that militaries are made for. The other part unfolded in the stony hills of the West Bank, in a little village where soldiers routinely fumble with the question of how much force to use against protesters, and on Friday killed one by firing a tear gas canister into his face from a distance of a few feet.

The protests at the village, called Nabi Saleh, are a weekly affair. Every Friday for the last two years, at the conclusion of noon prayers, villagers walk down the hill the village stands upon toward the spring that long supplied it water. And every Friday, they are stopped by Israeli soldiers near the junction with the much better road leading to the houses built for the Israeli settlers who moved onto the adjacent hillock 35 years ago, and now claim the spring as theirs.

This is how land changes hands around settlements: Slowly. “One acre, one goat at a time,” was a slogan favored by the Zionists accumulating the territory that would become Israel. The phrase is still bandied by settlers seeking to expand the state to include the terraced hills and canyons of the West Bank. While the building of settlements has received international condemnation, at ground level, where it matters, the efforts nearly always go unchallenged.

Nabi Saleh is an exception. The weekly protests are almost a cause celebre,  drawing ardent, scruffy international activists as well as a handful of obdurate Israeli peaceniks.  Before the march, they gather for a bite in the home of Bassem Tamimi, a rangy middle-aged activist from the secular Fatah party.

“We want to offer our people an example and model of popular struggle,” Tamimi told Amira Hass of Haaretz, shortly before Israeli troops arrived to arrest him earlier this year. The charges of planning  “illegal demonstrations” were similar to those filed against another West Bank protest organizer, Abdullah Abu Rahma, who Israeli troops took from his home on the International Day for Human Rights. Tamimmi remains in custody; Abu Rahma was released after more than a year in detention. In both cases, all that emerged with any clarity is the Israeli military’s discomfort with marching protesters. As the No. 2 in Israel’s defense ministry put it in 2010, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable quoted by WikiLeaks: “We don’t deal well with Gandhi.”

Armed militants raise fewer dilemmas. The weekend flare-up in Gaza started Thursday when an Israeli aircraft fired a missile into a car carrying a Palestinian militant said to be planning a terror attack on Israel’s south from the Sinai desert on the Egyptian side of the border.  The man was incinerated, along with his passenger. Gaza militants answered the assassination with a volley of rockets into Israel, all falling in open fields. Israel replied with another airstrike on militants.

In Nabi Saleh, nothing can be attacked by remote control. Usually, the protesters march toward the soldiers. The soldiers move toward the marchers. Sometimes a rock is thrown first. During lulls, Israeli activists get into the soldiers’ faces, usually asking terse questions, sometimes shouting. On Friday, according to the activists, Israeli forces made the first move, sounding a siren and firing canisters of tear gas high into the air, aimed upwind, to blow toward the demonstrators.

Everyone, it seems, holds a camera. From the sidelines of the action, soldiers record who throws a rock, storing images to compare with photos on file from midnight visits to the village, where soldiers demand parents rouse their children to be photographed, according to the Israeli human rights monitor B’Tselem. Arrests are also made at night; since 2009, some 13% of the village has been jailed.

Activists carry cameras as well, assuring Mustafa Tamimi a well-documented death. In the frames published online, the young man, a distant relative of Bassem Tamimi, is seen standing in the road, just behind an armored truck. The back door of the truck is opened just enough for the barrel of a weapon. The smoke from its barrel hangs in the air. The tear-gas canister is actually visible, caught in midair as it passes the truck’s side-view mirror, halfway between the door and Mustafa Tamimi’s face, which it would destroy.

Israel Defense Forces carried him to the hospital where he died. Afterward, the IDF spokesman’s office announced there would be an investigation of the incident but claimed that the soldier who fired the canister did not see Tamimi. However, the IDF’s own rule is that soldiers must fire canisters at a 45 degree angle into the air and not at a person. The photograph appears to show the barrel pointing directly at Tamimi.

The social media aftermath has been controversial as well. “[Why] on earth did Tamimi a so call “non-violent’’ protestor have a full faced mask? what was he hiding?” asked  asked Maj. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the IDF’s central command, in a Tweet from his personal account that infuriated survivors. A more senior officer tweeted a photo of a slingshot recovered from his pocket, evoking the central image of the First Intifada. That uprising, when children with “David Slings” faced tanks, announced the reversal of the David and Goliath dynamic that once had brought Israel the world’s sympathy, and now casts it as the bullying heavy. A former senior official in the Israeli security establishment tells TIME that the Jewish state is losing “the war of words. We have to deal with it with the same attention to strategy and tools that we bring to the military wars.”

Some in the Israeli military argue for more nimbleness. Senior officers say they frequently debate whether spending on warplanes and tanks – preparations for some future conventional war – comes at the expense of operations Israeli troops find themselves actually carrying out: crowd control and demonstrations. The technical term, “non-lethal measures,” implies not only the appropriate equipment but also training. Under IDF rules soldiers firing tear gas, for instance, are required to aim into the air, not at people.

Human rights activists, meanwhile, fault the Israeli military for making confrontations out of demonstrations. In a September report on the Nabi Saleh protests, “Show of Force,” B’Tselem chastised the Israeli military for treating protests as “disturbances” even when demonstrators refrain from throwing stones, and often respond with disproportionate force when they do.

“I don’t think anyone was arguing that Mustafa Tamimi wasn’t throwing stones at the military jeep,” says B’Tselem spokesperson Sarit Michaeli, who was in Nabi Saleh on Friday. By drawing attention to it, however, the IDF spokespersons are doing what Israel has come to do by reflex when the news is bad, be it after a botched flotilla boarding or a needless death in the occupied territory: play to its base. “As a PR person,” Michaeli says, “my assumption is their target audience is people who would be open to the notion that a Palestinian stone-thrower deserves the death penalty.”