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Israel arrests Palestinian barrier protest leader

Ben Hubbard | Washington Post

11 December 2009

RAMALLAH, West Bank — A leader of the most persistent Palestinian protest movement against Israel’s West Bank separation barrier was asleep in his home when troops broke down his door and arrested him.

Supporters of Abdullah Abu Rahmeh, a 38-year-old teacher, say his pre-dawn arrest on Thursday by dozens of troops is part of a recent, heavy-handed campaign by Israel to shut down a five-year-old movement that is the last source of unrest in the West Bank.

Since 2005, demonstrators led by Abu Rahmeh have marched every Friday from the West Bank village of Bilin to the nearby separation barrier that slices off 60 percent of the village land. Their acts of protest, which have also included chaining themselves to trees, have won praise from Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu and support among Israeli peace activists.

About two years ago, villagers in nearby Naalin started similar marches.

Some demonstrators routinely throw stones at Israeli soldiers, who fire tear gas, stun grenades, rubber-coated bullets and occasionally live rounds. One Bilin man and five in Naalin have been killed and hundreds have been wounded over the years. Israeli troops have also suffered some – though far fewer – injuries, including a soldier who lost an eye.

Israel considers the protests illegal and portrays them as riots, not nonviolent demonstrations.

Israel says the barrier – a wall in some places, a system of roads, cameras and fences in places like Bilin – seeks to keep out Palestinian attackers, including suicide bombers. Palestinians call it a tool to steal land, since it juts far into the West Bank in some places.

Abu Rahmeh’s Israeli lawyer, Gaby Lasky, said Israel is trying to stifle legitimate protest.

“The Israeli army has decided to crush the demonstrations by putting their leaders behind bars in complete violation of the right of freedom to demonstrate and freedom of speech,” she said. Israel has declared the area a closed military zone, banning civilians and making it a violation of Israeli law to be there.

The weekly protests in Bilin and Naalin are the only remaining pockets of unrest in the West Bank. The rest of the territory – controlled by Israel, with Palestinians given limited self-rule in some areas – has been pacified; many Palestinians are simply too tired to take to the streets after several years of bloody clashes with Israeli forces.

But the military has failed to end the Bilin and Naalin marches, even though it has tried different tactics, such as spraying demonstrators with foul-smelling liquids and imposing curfews.

Since June, troops have arrested 31 Bilin residents involved in the marches, among them 12 minors, organizers said. The arrests have focused on members of the village’s organizing committee and teens accused of throwing stones. Thirteen are currently in detention, five of them minors.

Abu Rahmeh’s lawyer said this was her client’s fourth arrest in five years, and that Israel has indicted him on charges of breaking curfew, interfering with police work and disturbing the public order. He was released pending trial before his new arrest Thursday, she said. Authorities have not said how long he will be held this time.

Most arrests happen at night, with large numbers of soldiers entering homes, villagers said. Detainees are often bound and blindfolded and sometimes beaten before being taken away for questioning, villagers said.

Detention ranges from a few days to several months, and a few are charged with crimes like incitement or stone-throwing, Bilin residents said.

Abu Rahmeh said in an interview in October that the army tried to arrest him in September, sending 50 soldiers to his Bilin home. He fled, then hid out in the nearby city of Ramallah, though he continued to attend the Friday marches.

Later, troops left a written summons for him to report to Israel’s security service. Abu Rahmeh didn’t go. “We practice popular resistance. We don’t do anything illegal, but they try to come up with counterfeit stories and use those to arrest us,” he said in October.

Early Thursday, nine jeeps surrounded Abu Rahmeh’s Ramallah apartment, said his wife, Majida.

“We were sleeping when they knocked, and there was all this noise downstairs so we knew right away,” she said. Four soldiers broke down the door before the family could open it and took her husband away, she said.

The small village of 1,800 people about seven miles (12 kilometers) west of Ramallah won a rare victory in 2007, when they Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the route of the barrier near Bilin had little to do with security and more to do with giving land to a nearby Jewish settlement.

The ruling would return 25 percent of the village’s land, but it has been tied up in appeals.

So the villagers keep marching.