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From the field

New report on the military's conduct in a-Nabi Saleh: Israel’s security forces effectively deny Palestinians’ right to demonstrate

In advance of the vote expected this month on the Palestinian state's membership in the United Nations, Israel is preparing for the possibility of wide-scale demonstrations in the West Bank. Past experience shows that the security forces face difficulties in dealing with these kinds of events and there is the potential for infringement of human rights. For this reason it is important to study how Israeli security forces have routinely dealt with such demonstrations. To do this, B'Tselem’s report Show of Force, published today (Monday, 12 September), examined security forces' conduct in the weekly demonstrations held by residents of the West Bank village a-Nabi Saleh in the past year and a half, in protest against the occupation and seizure of land by settlers.

B'Tselem’s research indicates that Israel does not recognize the basic right of the village’s residents to demonstrate, and that the army treats demonstrations in the village as disturbances, even when demonstrators do not throw stones: soldiers and Border Police dispersed the procession, at times even before it left the village, and in most cases even in the absence of any violent act by the demonstrators. The army declared the entire village a closed military area and blocked all the access roads to it. In dispersing the demonstration, security forces made excessive use of crowd control weapons, primarily the firing of tear gas canisters. Often soldiers and Border Police officers fired tear gas canisters directly at protesters, a dangerous practice which violates the military’s own orders.

The report indicates that the security forces’ handling of the demonstrations harms all the village’s residents, who find themselves, for all practical purposes, under curfew every Friday and exposed to the effects of the tear gas that penetrates their homes. Palestinians from nearby villages are also harmed by the closing of the roads, being forced to use alternate routes, which greatly extend their travel time.

The demonstrations in a-Nabi Saleh have followed a similar pattern since their beginning: a non-violent procession with the expressed goal of reaching a nearby spring taken over by settlers. In most cases after the procession is dispersed, clashes break out between security forces and stone-throwing boys and youths, and can last several hours Over time, the intensity of the clashes has changed and today, a few dozen persons take part in the protests, and the scale of stone-throwing has generally decreased.

For the report, B'Tselem systematically documented four consecutive demonstrations with video and field-observation – on 17 June, 24 June, 1 July, and 8 July. Additionally, B’Tselem monitored subsequent demonstrations, took testimonies from village residents and viewed additional video footage filmed by B'Tselem volunteers and by other persons. Inquiries were directed to the commander of the military forces in the West Bank, Brig. Gen. Nitzan Alon and to the IDF Spokesperson. Individual complaints regarding a number of incidents that occurred during the period B'Tselem documented were submitted to the military advocate for operational matters, to the Department for the Investigation of Police, and to the Border Police’s public-requests officer.

The right to protest is enshrined in many international conventions that Israel has committed itself to. However, it seems that the Israeli military does not recognize the right to demonstrate in the West Bank. This conclusion stems from the practice documented by B’Tselem in the field, as well as from the analysis of Military Order 101, signed in 1967 and still applicable in the West Bank, which denies Palestinian residents of the area their freedom of expression and protest.

The manner in which security forces handle the demonstrations in a-Nabi Saleh might indicate how the defense establishment is preparing for the events expected later this month. In this context, too, B'Tselem calls on the security forces to respect Palestinians’ right to protest and to enable them to exercise that right, with the limitations that can be imposed in a democracy, as necessary. Dispersal of demonstrations, where necessary, must be executed by proportionate use of means that do not endanger the participants or nearby residents.