Long before anyone was talking about the Arab spring, Palestinians from the small village of Nabi Saleh in the West Bank were holding demonstrations every Friday. They started about a year and a half ago, in a dispute over a natural spring with nearby Jewish settlers.
Though the demonstrations are still small scale, the aim of the protesters is much bigger now.
In the shade of a giant fruit tree in the village square, a crowd of about 75 people gather and wait for Friday prayers to finish. They are local Palestinians from Nabi Saleh, joined by a couple dozen Israeli and foreign activists. Mahmoud Tamimi is one of the protest organizers.
"A year and a half ago I considered all Jews and Israelis as the enemy. These were the people who stole my land, hurt, imprisoned and killed my relatives," Tamimi said. "But seeing Israelis take part in these protests here in his home village changed my views.
He said the protests here confirm that occupation is the enemy.
"It's the enemy of humanity," he said, "not just the enemy of Palestinians or Arabs or any one group. What the people here want is their freedom."
Nabi Saleh only has a population of about five hundred people. And most of the demonstration organizers come from the same extended family. But the place has become a model for what Palestinians call non-violent resistance against the Israeli occupation.
Manell Tamimi said this movement could very easily catch on in other parts of the Palestinian territories, leading to a third Palestinian intifada. And that's what the Israelis are afraid of.
"That's why they attack the village violently and in a very cruel way, to stop it in Nabi Saleh," Tamimi said. "Once they said in their report in the Israeli news that, "the virus of Nabi Saleh should be killed in Nabi Saleh and not spread to other villages.'"
The plan this Friday is the same as every Friday. To march down the main road, chant slogans and wave Palestinian flags. The crowd makes it about a hundred yards or so before the tear gas flies.
The main demonstration is over as soon as it started. Everyone dispersed and a small group of protestors gathered again to wait for the effects of the tear gas to wear off.
Another member of the Tamimi family said the Israeli soldiers are making it harder and harder to have any sort of demonstration, peaceful or otherwise.
"What they try to do is instigate the youth to throw rocks," she said, "because this is what they eventually want, to have pictures of people throwing rocks. And what we're trying to do is to march down there and just peacefully, either sit down on the floor, or just like stand there, confronting the soldiers. But not using any sort of physical violence. What they're trying to do is to push the people to start throwing rocks instead of being able to march peacefully."
What happens next in Nabi Saleh has become somewhat routine. Smaller groups of protesters head back down the road. And there is more tear gas. Sometimes soldiers move right into the center of the village, enter homes and make some arrests. By early evening, things usually quiet down.
Captain Barak Raz is a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces. He said this and other demonstrations in the West Bank are not non-violent.
"We are aware that there are plenty of demonstrators there who don't partake in the violence. But unfortunately there are plenty of inciters among them, people who are looking to instigate something a little bit beyond just a peaceful rally," he said. "And they do use violence, be it throwing rocks and stones or Molotov cocktails and burning tires."
The bigger challenge though might be how Israel's military would handle much larger numbers of unarmed demonstrators. In other words, what happens if the Arab Spring spreads to the Palestinian territories?
One of Manell Tamimi's sons decided to wear his Spiderman suit to the demonstration today.
The march lasted about 90 seconds before the tear gas came flying in.
The march lasted about 90 seconds before the tear gas came flying in. (Photo: Matthew Bell)
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