Public servant Bassem Mohammed al-Tamimi is from al-Nabi Saleh, a small village about 20 kilometers northwest of Ramallah. As coordinator of the local Popular Committee, Tamimi has played a leading role in al-Nabi Saleh’s demonstrations against the nearby illegal Israeli settlement and military base of Halamish. Jody McIntyre interviewed al-Tamimi for The Electronic Intifada.
Jody McIntyre:Tell me about your personal experience of the occupation.
Bassem Mohammed al-Tamimi: I was born in 1967, and in my mind as a child growing up, an Israeli is someone who shoots at me, questions me in prison, beats me up, or someone I see assaulting women. I’ve been jailed over 10 times in the space of four years, mostly for questioning or administrative reasons.
My sister was killed after she was assaulted by a translator in an Israeli military court. Right in front of the eyes of the Israeli justice system, the soldiers translating proceedings beat her until she fell off her chair, hit her head on the ground and died.
At the time, I was in an Israeli jail being interrogated. They used illegal torture techniques on me that induced hemorrhaging and an eight-day coma, and half my body remained paralyzed for a while.
These experiences did not help the image I had of Israelis, but after we started our demonstrations in al-Nabi Saleh and I met the Israeli activists that would join us, I realized that once the mentality of the occupiers had been removed from their minds, they became humans just like us. They became our friends, they lived with us and ate and slept in our homes. This gives me the belief that one nation, where we are all equal citizens, is a possibility.
JM: Tell me about al-Nabi Saleh.
BT: I moved to the area in 1976, when some people from a settler organization named Gush Emunim came to form a settlement in the place of an old army barracks from the days of the British occupation. They started to, but people rose up to demonstrate, and eventually managed to halt the movement through legal action. But after the rise of [Menachem] Begin’s Likud government in 1977 the settlers tried again and this time were successful. They began burning down the woodland around the area, in order to expand the settlement in every direction.
Since that day in 1977, the settlement has not stopped encroaching on our lands, uprooting our trees and destroying anything and everything in its wake. In 2002, they began constructing the wall around the settlement, stealing even more of our olive groves and farm land in the process.
In 2008, the original land owners succeeded in getting an Israeli court order against this route of the wall, but despite this, no one from the village has been allowed to access their land behind the wall. We wanted the court order to make it clear to the world that this wall is an illegal act of the occupation on our land, even under Israeli law!
JM: How did the popular resistance begin in al-Nabi Saleh?
BT: Al-Nabi Saleh has always had a strong history of popular resistance. For a village with a population of just 500 people we had 18 martyrs … we had the highest rate of martyrs, the highest rate of prisoners, the highest rate of literacy and we were at the very forefront of the first intifada. From the start of the occupation, resistance has been part of our existence. We haven’t stopped resisting for a second, even when in 2001 the Israeli army lay siege to one of the homes in the village, which they occupied and converted into a military watch-tower and checkpoint. For a whole month, we demonstrated day and night outside the house, until the army felt that it was impossible for them to stay any longer.
In December 2009, younger members of the village started organizing protests here, alongside residents of neighboring villages, as a way of raising awareness about our situation. As soon as the demonstrations began, the settlers began destroying, uprooting and burning more than 150 of our olive trees, but it only made us more determined to continue in our resistance.
After a couple of protests, many women from the village started to join us, but they were immediately targeted by the Israeli army, who know the Palestinian mentality in regards to defending the dignity of our women. The soldiers arrested several women, including my wife, who were later interrogated and physically assaulted in jail. At the very next demonstration, they again attacked and arrested several more women. Then the army started targeting homes in our village, even before we set off, entering the village from a number of directions.
Every week, we would have an average of 20 casualties in the hospital; some would have broken jaws, broken bones … one guy was shot in the head with a rubber-coated steel bullet and still suffers from the injury. Some homes were targeted with tear gas while the children were inside, and we had to break the windows to get them out for fear of the gas canisters setting fire to the homes. As the demonstrations continued, attacks of this nature became more frequent. They were trying to send us a very clear message: “your protesting will not get you anywhere.” The last tactic the army resorted to was to demolish a number of homes in the village. But despite the suffering inflicted upon us, these efforts can never match the suffering of the occupation itself, and thus, it is the occupation which we continue to struggle against.
JM: Does the Israeli army invade al-Nabi Saleh during the night?
BT: They storm into our homes at all sorts of hours, and the army has detained a number of youths on charges of involvement in the protests. The other day, the settlers themselves tried to gain access to someone’s home, but we managed to repel them without suffering any casualties or damage. It is a constant threat at all hours of the day, but we believe that resistance is our right. The settlements have killed our dream of a homeland, and negate any possibility for peace.
JM: Do you think that the Israeli army has been particularly violent in al-Nabi Saleh in order to crush the resistance at an early stage?
BT: Of course they want to crush our resistance! I told you that on the day of the very first demonstration, the settlers burnt down 150 of our olive trees, and this was despite the fact that the landowners had gone to the demonstration each carrying a branch from those same olive trees, as a symbol of peace and their willingness for a peaceful resolution. After the settlers had burned down our trees, there were no olive branches left for us to carry.
So it is clear that they are trying to quash the peaceful resistance and this will, of course, ignite armed resistance. Everyone knows the inextricable ties between the Palestinians and their olive trees; it’s [the Palestinian’s] income, so when cut down, his income is cut down … the trees are like his children, and when you cut them down it is like you are killing his children.
I spoke to one of those landowners who had come to the demonstration with an olive branch, and he never came to a demonstration again. He told me that now, if any one of these organizations or groups which carry out armed resistance — as is our right under international law, although not the best way to achieve our rights — and said to him “here is a weapon, join our resistance movement,” then he would be mentally prepared to do so, because he has seen his peaceful approach burned and scorched before his eyes.
We feel that the Israel army and government try to push the Palestinians towards violent resistance, so they can continue lying to the world and spreading their propaganda that the Palestinians are only capable of reacting violently.
JM: Did other villages such as Nilin and Bilin provide inspiration for the movement in al-Nabi Saleh?
BT: Although those villages are important, they are only examples of an idea of resistance that we need to nationalize across all of Palestine, in the hope that every household, at every hour, will be prepared to represent the Palestinian struggle against the occupation.
JM: How do you see the future of this movement?
BT: I hope that our experience is learned from across Palestine and that it ignites a third intifada as strong as the first one — an uprising of civil resistance against the occupation.
JM: What role do you think internationals should play in such a movement?
The presence of internationals is important, but what is far more important is the presence of a Palestinian agenda and leadership, so that the people from abroad can join us in our struggle. Unfortunately, in some places we now have a situation where the foreigners are outnumbering the Palestinians, and this is unacceptable.
Jody McIntyre is a journalist from the United Kingdom. He writes a blog entitled “Life on Wheels” which can be found at jodymcintyre.wordpress.com. He can be reached at jody [dot] mcintyre [at] gmail [dot] com.