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The Battle of Nabi Saleh: Soldiers vs. Kids

When Israeli soldiers entered the embattled Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh on July 2, they were immediately confronted by over a dozen small children. While the IDF is accustomed to firing teargas canisters, percussion grenades, rubber bullets and even live .22 caliber ammunition at adolescent boys, members of the Nahal unit and Kfir infantry brigade tasked with suppressing the weekly Nabi Saleh demonstration were frustrated by the children who surrounded and taunted them. At one point, the division commander became so upset he barked into his radio, “I need backup!”

The spectacle of seven-year-old children confronting heavily armed and visibly confused soldiers offers one of the clearest perspectives of the lopsided power dynamic that animates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also highlights the reality of life for children in the Occupied Territories. They play soccer and dodgeball between phalanxes of soldiers firing lethal projectiles at their neighbors just a few meters away — everyday life is an act of resistance.

Why are children participating in popular protests? Consider the case of Ni’ilin, a Palestinian village engaged in popular struggle against the construction of the separation wall across its privately owned land. The Israeli army is holding three members of its small popular committee — the political leadership of the village — in harsh conditions in Ofer prison. They were arrested without charges during a night raid, subjected to psychological torture by the Shabak (Israel’s General Security Service), and are being held indefinitely.

“Everyone is scared to protest now,” Saeed Amireh, a Niilin resident in his early twenties, told me. “I can participate in the demonstrations because I am single. But for those of us who have wives and children, going to jail is the worst. How can we work for our families or know what is happening with our wife if we are taken away?” Amireh had just returned from a four month stint in Ofer prison which he described as “horrible.” He is still not sure what crime he was accused of committing. “It’s bullshit,” he said. “I’m not the one doing any violence.”

During Friday’s protest in Nabi Saleh, orders could be heard blaring from soldiers’ radios to photograph some of the older (read: over 10 years old) boys participating in the protest. The photos are used to identify targets for night raids, when soldiers enter the village under cover of darkness, burst into homes and grab the young children and adolescent boys comprising the village’s shabab from their beds.

According to Lymor Goldstein, a lawyer who represents many of the Ni’ilin residents detained for joining protests, the arrested youth are immediately subjected to psychological torture by the Shabak: they are held in total darkness, fed at odd hours, threatened, and interrogated as soon as they become sufficiently scared and disoriented. “They don’t really need to beat them,” Goldstein told me during a demonstration in Niilin. “The psychological torture is so intense that almost no one can resist it.” (Goldstein confided to me that he was having trouble recalling specific names because of a rubber bullet that pierced his skull during a protest in the village of Bil’in in 2006, causing long term damage to his vision and memory. Video of the Israeli Border Police shooting Goldstein is here.)

Because grown men are particularly vulnerable to imprisonment and adolescent boys are targeted with just about any kind of violence the Israeli army wants to level against them, young children have led the Nabi Saleh demonstrations on at least three occasions. While the soldiers acted with general restraint towards the kids (Nahal is peppered with left-leaning citizen-soldiers who have been convinced they can foster “change from within” by joining a combat unit) children as young as seven have been called in for recent interrogations by the Shabak. While the Shabak called the incident a “mistake,” it is not isolated. Nora Barrows-Friedman reported last March on a 10 year old who was badly beaten during a night raid of his home by Israeli troops, then detained in a nearby settlement for 10 hours. In Nabi Saleh, a young boy was critically injured by Israeli forces in March.

On July 2, the soldiers in Nabi Saleh wound up taking their frustrations out on two Israeli activists, Yonathan Shapira and Matan Cohen, violently subduing and arresting them. Though Shapira and Cohen were baselessly accused by the IDF Spokesman’s Office of “attacking” a soldier, they were released hours after their detention.

What are Israeli soldiers doing in Nabi Saleh in the first place? The village has been besieged by its neighbors from the religious nationalist Israeli settlement of Halamish since Halamish was constructed in 1977 on land privately owned by Nabi Saleh’s residents. Recently, the settlers seized control of a fresh water spring that has belonged to Nabi Saleh since the village was built in the 19th century. In December 2009, the settlers uprooted hundreds of the village’s olive trees in an attempt to re-annex land awarded back to Nabi Saleh in an Israeli court case. Since then, farmers from Nabi Saleh have been subjected to routine attacks by settlers and prevented from working their land. The Israeli army has come down firmly on the side of Halamish, suppressing the demonstrations with disproportionate force while doing little, if anything, to prevent settler violence. But if the spirit of Nabi Saleh’s young demonstrators are any indication, the army has a long way to go before it breaks the villagers’ will.