‘We have no alternative than peaceful protest’

Guardian.co.uk | Israeli troops have surrounded a Palestinian village in the occupied West Bank after several weeks of demonstrations against the latest stretch of the West Bank barrier.

For at least the past two days the military has placed a cordon around the village of Nilin, imposing what it calls a “closure” and preventing people from entering or leaving. Nilin is the latest village to join a small but growing protest movement that organisers say is supposed to remain non-violent, but which often involves stone throwing.

The military said the closure was a direct response to the protests. “There have been riots in the past few weeks and there is a closure now,” said a military spokeswoman. She said three Israeli soldiers and five border policeman had been injured in recent protests and that a closure had been imposed since Sunday morning. Villagers said Nilin had been closed for four days.

A major demonstration is planned for Thursday this week, but villagers say they have been told the Israeli military cordon will remain as long as the demonstrations continue.

Dozens of protesters, both Palestinians and foreigners, have also been injured, some seriously, when troops and policeman have fired tear gas and rubber-coated bullets at the crowds. In the most recent incident, on Sunday, one soldier and 50 demonstrators were injured.

Protests have recently started against the building on the village’s farmland of a stretch of the barrier that will place 2,500 dunams (250 hectares) of Nilin’s farmland on the “Israeli” side, an area of the West Bank which here has been used to build several Jewish settlements, including Hashmoniim. Two other settlements, Nili and Na’ale, have also been built to the east of the village and the people of Nilin fear they will soon be surrounded and cut off. All settlements in the occupied territories are illegal under international law.

“Our land will be divided into small cantons,” Salah Khawaja said before the latest Israeli military operations. Khawaja, 40, is one of the organisers of the village protests and works as an administrator in a medical organisation.

“People in this area were totally dependent on agriculture but now they are imposing a transfer and migration policy on us in a very harsh way. Everyone can see the quantity and quality of land they are going to confiscate,” he said.

In 1948, at the time of the creation of the state of Israel, the village had around 57,000 dunams of land, he said. It now has around 10,000 and will have even fewer when the latest part of the barrier is finished.

Khawaja has already spent a quarter of his life in an Israeli jail. He was picked up in the mid-1980s just before the first Palestinian intifada when he was a student activist at the leading university on the West Bank, Birzeit, where he led protests against the Israeli occupation. Now 20 years have gone by – including the terrible violence of the second intifada, with its suicide bombings and tough Israeli military raids – and Khawaja is once again leading protests. This time he belongs to a group called al-Mubadara, the Palestinian National Initiative, led by Mustafa Barghouti, a doctor and politician who argues in favour of non-violent protest.

“The first message is to say to Palestinians that any inch of our land that we can preserve is quite an achievement,” said Khawaja. “We demonstrate to strengthen our connection with the land, a connection that we feel slipped away since the intifada because we were living under the illusion that the agreements with the Israelis would solve all our problems.”

So at midday on a recent Friday, instead of going to the mosque, Khawaja and hundreds of his neighbours walked out onto their farmland to pray under the shade of their olive trees. A few hundred yards away Israeli troops fired the occasional round into the air to deter protesters from getting too close.

Among the crowd was Asad Amir, 54, who spent more than 20 years working as a labourer in Israel and used the money to buy and farm in the village. His land will soon be completely cut off by the barrier. “We don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “Coming here is the least we can do but the stronger side are always going to win.”

Akram Khawaja, 24, a recently-graduated computer engineer, was also praying with the crowd. “It’s not easy to get our land back this way, but it’s the safe way to act and to show the world that we do believe in non-violence. We’re struggling to get our rights.”

The villagers say they feel overlooked by the Palestinian political leadership, who do not attend the increasing frequent protests. Although there is stone throwing, the protest organisers say they have tried to discourage that and instead arrange gatherings where the crowd uses hand-held mirrors to reflect the sun in the faces of soldiers and settlers across the barrier, or where they bang household pots and pans and blow whistles loudly within earshot of the nearby settlement.

But across the Palestinian territories the influence of the armed groups over all forms of protest remains strong and efforts to maintain a non-violent movement have proved extremely difficult and have rarely won a broad following. Many Palestinians argue it is futile, others are put off by the risk of injury or arrest.

“We believe we have no other alternative than peaceful protest,” said Khawaja. “We believe popular resistance should be a national strategy, but it is not easy to convince others. It’s much harder than you think to convince people to come on a peaceful procession. Civil action takes time and a lot of education.”