As Israel cracks down harshly on unarmed protesters, Donald Macintyre meets one Palestinian family whose teenage son has paid a heavy price
Asdal found his son, 14, on the road from their village of Beit Rima and ordered him into the car. "I told him: 'You shouldn't go, you're too young.' He told me: 'I want to resist.' I said: 'Do you want me to see you on TV?'" But when Asdal stopped at a local garage and went in to talk to the mechanic, Ehab made his escape.
A few hours later he was unconscious in intensive care in Ramallah's main hospital, a rubber-coated steel bullet having penetrated his skull. He had been standing among a crowd of youths, well inside the nearby village of Nabi Saleh, on a hillside carpeted with the first daisies and wild flowers of spring. Many of the youths were throwing stones at an unfinished house 25 metres away which had been occupied by armed Israeli Border Police some 15 minutes earlier. Shortly after 2.30pm a shot rang out, probably from the window, and Ehab dropped face down on the ground before being carried vomiting and bleeding from the wound above his right eye by four older men to relative safety back up the hill.
Even if freshly promised "proximity talks" between Israelis and Palestinians get under way, they are unlikely to halt the weekly protests that will take place after noon prayers today in some villages and tomorrow in others. The Palestinian Authority did not start the weekly protests that have now spread to more than half a dozen West Bank villages. And it is not leading them. But a supportive Palestinian cabinet statement appeared to adopt their model last month, applauding that: "Peaceful and popular efforts have regained international recognition of the just Palestinian cause and revealed the void Israeli excuses for the construction of settlements and the wall."
For something is happening in these villages nestling among the rocky hills and olive groves between Ramallah and Nablus. The Israeli military does not accept the classification of the protests as non-violent; most usually end in confrontations between stone-throwing Palestinian youths and armed police and troops. But for the six years of such protests none of the Palestinians, in contrast to the security forces, have carried weapons. If these are the first tentative stirrings of a new uprising, and it is doubtful they can be described as that yet, then they are closer to the beginnings in 1987 of the first intifada, the so-called "war of stones", than the second, with its bloody record of suicide bombings between 2000 and around 2005. Some commentators have dubbed the protests – and the apparent endorsement of them by the internationally respected Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad – as the "white" intifada.
Either way the protests, and the Palestinian Authority's refusal to condemn them, have provoked a strong reaction from Israel's security establishment. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported this week that Israel had warned the PA that if it did not "contain" the protests it would lose co-operation with Israel and there would be more arrests within the West Bank. An unnamed Israeli security official was earlier quoted in the same paper as having told diplomats that the protests constituted an "existential" threat to Israel.
Except for the 10 real injuries (eight to demonstrators and two to photographers), Nabi Saleh, where the villagers all belong to one clan, the Tamimis, last Friday had a flavour of Kabuki about it with Palestinians, supporting international and Israeli activists, and security forces all playing their part. The march of perhaps 100 men, children and a few women started in bright sunshine from the middle of the village. They began their descent along the main street chanting slogans like "National Unity: Fatah, Hamas, PFLP". They followed the road round to the left, past the petrol station and were still a good 800 metres from the main road (Route 465) separating Nabi Saleh from the Israeli settlement of Halamish when the first tear gas canisters – along, say the protesters, with rubber bullets – were fired by the Israeli forces who had long taken up a position on a hilltop to the right. Some marchers scrambled down the hillside to the right, others retreated back towards the village, while others continued to move forward.
There was perhaps an hour of cat-and-mouse between the Tamimi youths and the Israeli forces controlling the exits from Nabi Saleh, the former throwing stones that fell short of any target and the latter firing rubber bullets and tear gas canisters (aluminium and rubber) that hit and injured a few protesters before the forces began to advance into the village itself. Three Jeeps advanced slowly up the road behind a white truck carrying a water cannon spraying "skunk", a foul-smelling substance that leaves its odour for a week in the clothes of anyone who comes into direct contact with it. Taking refuge with perhaps a dozen protesters in the back room of the petrol station you could hear the loud explosion of a stun grenade – and the firing of tear gas and rubber bullets to cover the front Jeep as it was pelted with stones – before it began to move slowly back down the road again.
It seemed all over. But then the forces took over two houses, one the green building from which Ehab Barghouti, still in a coma yesterday, was shot. Pictures taken by The Independent from earlier in the protest show him hanging back from the front lines. But once the forces were inside the house, he was within range and in real danger. According to the Israeli human rights agency B'tselem, the regulation minimum range for firing rubber bullets is 40 metres and such bullets must be fired only at legs and not fired at children. Secondly, it is far from clear why the security forces occupied the house at all. According to Ramzi Tamimi, 33, one of the men who took the inert Ehab back up the hill: "As long as the soldiers stay away from the village and stay at the entrances, nothing happens. They deliberately come to make friction with us." And beyond this is the fact that the entire protest took place on Palestinian land, land that if the putative peace talks ever had an outcome, would be part of a Palestinian state. For the stated, and of course never reached, destination of the march was a spring a few metres on the other side of Route 465, on what had long been Tamimi land. But the Halamish residents now control the land – and the spring – to the extent that when the villagers tried to cultivate their olive trees last November, they say they were driven away by armed, stone-throwing settlers.
The military says that "rock-throwing is considered a serious offence, placing others at significant risk and endangering both public and regional security." But in Nabi Saleh the protesters were still marching peacefully, well within the village, and certainly not throwing stones when the military started firing tear gas.
At times the Israeli military has been deploying more lethal ammunition. The more famous and longer-running protests against the separation barrier have been at Nilin and Bil'in (where the IDF has finally decided to modify the route of the barrier so it will swallow up less of the villagers' land, two-and-a-half years after a court order to do so). At both it has fired .22 live ammunition and high-velocity tear gas projectiles which are intended by their US manufacturers to be used to penetrate walls rather than against open-air crowds. It was one of these that severely wounded the US activist Tristan Anderson in the forehead in Nilin in March 2009 and has left him, after months in an Israeli hospital, with permanent brain damage. Another killed a prominent Bil'in protester Bassem abu Rahmah a month later.
According to the Popular Struggle Co-ordination committee, a loose body linking the local protest organisers, the .22 live bullets – which were proscribed for crowd-control by the military Advocate General in 2001 but reintroduced Operation Cast Lead in Gaza – have killed one demonstrator and injured 28 in Nilin alone since January last year.
Then there are the scores of arrests, frequently at night, including five in Nabi Saleh two days before last Friday's demo. The arrests – including 112 in Bil'in alone since May 2008 – have worried European diplomats enough for them to form a rota to monitor the military court in Ofer where most of the detainees appear. One day last week – in the additional presence of an official from the US Consulate General – one of the Bil'in protest leaders, Abdullah Abu Rahmah, 39, who has been in military detention since December, was remanded again on a series of charges including a bizarre one of illegal arms possession; the indictment relates to Mr Abu Rahmah's collection of spent tear gas canisters for an exhibition. As his Israeli lawyer Gaby Lasky told the court, her client was in no different a position from the police in the Negev border town of Sderot who have a collection of exploded Qassam rockets fired from Gaza to show visitors. "Because they are spent, they cannot be addressed as illegal arms," she patiently explained to the military judge. The case continues.
The military has also sought to move against another notable aspect of the protests, the supportive presence of the left-wing Israeli activists who now regularly join them. The registration numbers of cars entering the West Bank through various checkpoints are checked against those of known Israeli participants. Among the 15 Israelis taking part in Nabi Saleh last week was Jonathan Pollak, a 28-year-old from Anarchists Against the Wall who is media co-ordinator on the joint committee.
For Ayed Morrar, a true Palestinian veteran of unarmed protest in the West Bank, the presence of Israelis is highly positive. "It's good for our people, and good for them," he says. Mr Morrar (who was injured by rubber bullets when he took part in the first demonstration in Nabi Saleh in January) is a popular leader in Budrus, where the villagers managed to change the route of the barrier at a time when suicide bombing was at its height and popular unarmed protest much criticised by Palestinian militants. Mr Morrar has spent six years in an Israeli prison as a Fatah activist (even though he never participated in armed violence) but now charges both Fatah and Hamas with being more interested in the sometimes bloody rivalry with each other than the national cause. His credo is to "apply all the sources of pressure on the occupation except killing. It is forbidden to decide to kill, to try to kill or to kill." Arguing the Palestinians needs the international community on its side, he adds: "We want to show we are not against Jews, not against Israelis. We are against the occupation."