Fighting a battle on two fronts: Nabi Saleh's girl protesters

May 15, 2014
Girls among those leading the way in a 2012 non-violent anti-occupation protest in Nabi Saleh. (Photo Credit: ActiveStills)

By Olivia Watson*

Ramallah, May 15, 2014—From her window Ah'd Tamimi, 13, can see Halamish, an Israeli settlement that was founded directly opposite her village in 1977. Nabi Saleh, a village of 500 residents, was a peaceful home to Ah'd's family for generations. Her childhood, however, has been marred by the ongoing conflict between the two communities.

For the past four years, Ah'd and other children from Nabi Saleh have been attending demonstrations every Friday to protest the presence of the settlement, deemed illegal under international law.

Asked why she protests, Ah'd responds simply, "The settlers stole our land, and Israeli soldiers killed my relatives."

The weekly protests began in 2009, when tensions between Nabi Saleh and Halamish came to a head after settlers took control of a nearby water spring that serves the village. The spring is situated on privately-owned land belonging to residents of the village, who are now prevented from working the surrounding land by the settlers and the Israeli military.

According to international law, Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are illegal. Israel, however, claims religious and historical right to the territory. Meanwhile, the settlements are growing. In 2013, Israeli construction in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, increased by 130 percent compared with 2012, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

The villagers say that the unarmed demonstrations are their villagers' way of resisting the confiscation of Palestinian land and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories since 1967.

Demonstrations of this kind take place across the Occupied Palestinian Territory, however, Nabi Saleh is unique in its open attitude toward the participation of women and girls.

Historically, a combination of the violence that accompanies demonstrations and traditional attitudes toward the role of women has acted as a barrier to women and girls participating fully.

But villagers here want to include all members of the community, young and old, in what they see as the struggle for the survival of their village. Consequently, Ah'd is part of a highly politicized generation of girls who regularly protest.

Despite the dangers involved in demonstrating, the girls maintain that they feel safe participating in the protests. Noor Tamimi, 17, puts it down to the close bonds that exist within the community.

"Everyone here belongs to the same extended family," she said. "So, when we go to demonstrations we feel that there are lots of people looking out for us."

Ah'd's mother Nariman agrees, adding that the women and girls also think of themselves as less traditional than other communities, and so do not face disapproval from their neighbors when they participate.

"We are not conservative here, we are open-minded," she said. "It wasn't an issue when the girls said they wanted to participate."

Ah'd and her friends recognize that their participation is considered unusual in other communities, but are scathing of some conservative views that say they shouldn't attend demonstrations because it is distracting for boys.

Maram Tamimi, a 16-year-old who has been attending the demonstrations since she was 12, remarks, "if boys are looking around at girls at a demonstration, they can't really be that interested in the problems."

But attending the protests does expose the girls to violence.

They are all well-versed in the types of crowd control weapons used by Israeli forces to police the protests. "The soldiers start firing tear gas, 'skunk' (a putrid-smelling liquid) and rubber bullets straight away," Ah'd said. "They don't care if you're young or old, they still fire."

Across the West Bank, the Israeli military regularly uses weapons like these, known as “non-fatal riot dispersal methods.” It maintains it uses them for crowd control purposes, but evidence collected by human rights groups like B’Tselem suggests that soldiers regularly use these weapons excessively and improperly.

Most of the girls who participate have sustained injuries in the past four years. Noor was injured on three separate occasions in 2013 by rubber and plastic-coated metal bullets that hit her in the legs, knee and head.

"When I was hit in the leg I was with my sister, filming the demonstration," Noor said. "A soldier saw us standing to the side and screamed at us to go away. When we didn't move he fired tear gas, and after that rubber bullets."

These riot dispersal methods employed by Israeli forces have gained notoriety for their impact on children. In 2011, B’Tselem documented the extent of the Israeli forces’ reaction to the protests, noting the indiscriminate use of crowd control weapons against children.

The report documents one occasion when stun grenades were fired directly into a group of young girls, as well as noting the health implications for children exposed to large quantities of tear gas on a weekly basis.

Nariman and other mothers in the village emphasize that they would rather their children were not put regularly in harm’s way, but say that Israeli techniques of collective punishment that drag women and children into the conflict leave them with no choice. Night raids, in particular, bring the conflict into the girls' homes.

The raids normally begin between 1 am and 3 am and can last for up to four hours. "The Israeli soldiers fire tear gas directly into rooms where children are sleeping," says mother-of-four Manal Tamimi. "It is traumatic for the children."

Unable to keep their children safe at night in their own homes, families opt to educate their children on the conflict, to help them to understand what is happening and why, and to enable them to participate in ensuring that the village has a future.

The girls now see it as their duty to act. "We have to show we are not scared," Noor says. "There'll never be justice unless we do something. We all have to do something."

*Olivia Watson is a research consultant at Defense for Children International Palestine.

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