A Palestinian villager who is on trial for organising popular protests in the West Bank told a court on Sunday that the charges against him were “fiction.”
Bassem Tamimi was arrested in March 24 last year and accused of organising illegal demonstrations and incitement to stone-throwing in connection with a series of weekly protests in Nabi Saleh against the takeover of village land by Jewish settlers.
On Sunday, Tamimi, whose arrest sparked international condemnation, took the stand for the first time since his arrest, telling Ofer military court that his arrest was a bid to stamp out peaceful popular protest against the occupation.
“This indictment has absolutely no basis in reality and I have nothing to do with the charges against me,” said Tamimi, who was last year recognised by the European Union as a human rights defender.
On the night he was arrested, his interrogators said they would show him pictures incriminating him, but they never did.
“That proved to me that the whole thing was just based on a lie, that the whole case was invented and there isn’t a shred of evidence to prove that I’m guilty,” he said. “It was clear to me that all they wanted was a confession.”
The weekly protests in Nabi Saleh began at the end of 2009, following a years-long legal battle with residents of the nearby settlement of Halamish who in 2001 seized around 240 acres (100 hectares) of the villagers’ land, he told the court.
Although an Israeli court ruled in their favour, the settlers continued to prevent the villagers from accessing their land and also took control of a nearby spring.
One Friday in late 2009, the villagers began walking with the farmers towards their land to help them cultivate it, but were prevented from getting there by both settlers and the army, Tamimi said.
“Before we reached the confiscated land and the spring, the settlers started assaulting us, throwing stones and shooting at us. Many people were injured by the army who shot rubber bullets, tear gas and concussion grenades,” he said.
It soon became a Friday afternoon tradition, with the villagers routinely trying to go down and cultivate the land, and finding themselves blocked by the army.
“Every time we try to help them work the land, before we reach it, they disperse us using rubber bullets, tear gas and using excessive force. This is what happens every Friday,” he said.
The Israeli military claims the demonstrations are illegal, but Tamimi said the right to peaceful protest is enshrined in international law.
“International law gives us the right to peaceful protest, to demonstrate our refusal of the policies that hurt us in our daily life,” he said, describing the protests as “civilian in nature, peaceful.”
“There is no one in charge of what happens there… no need for anyone to train people in stone throwing,” he said. “You don’t need to hand out stones or give orders for that to happen.”
Figures provided by the grassroots Popular Struggle Coordination Committee indicate that between January 2010 and April 2011, the army arrested 73 people, one in four of them minors — or more 10 percent of Nabi Saleh’s population of 550.
The military prosecution’s case against Tamimi is largely based on the testimony of two teenage boys aged 14 and 15, although activists say their interrogation was fundamentally flawed and violated many of their rights as minors.
Almost all demonstrations in the Palestinian territories are defined as “illegal” under Israeli military law, which states that any gathering of 10 or more people requires a permit.
According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) the ban on demonstrations and the forced dispersal of peaceful protests represent “a clear violation of the rules of international law that are incumbent on the occupying power.”