Standing With the Villagers of Nabi Saleh

By Edith Garwood, Amnesty International USA Country Specialist on Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Palestinian Authority

Iyad Burnat, who is featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary 5 Broken Cameras, was shot last month by Israeli security forces. He was participating in the weekly peaceful demonstration held by the Bil'in community to protest the encroaching Israeli settlement of Modi'in Illit, which is considered illegal under international law, and the barrier built by Israel which cuts them off from their fields and water wells.

On one such Friday in 2009, I was in the village of Bil'in, in the occupied West Bank. I was at the protest as an observer, but when I heard the hiss of tear gas canisters and saw them hurtling straight towards my camera lens - and me - I turned and ran just like everyone else around me.

In North Carolina, I'm a wife and mother of three, but I also serve as the country specialist on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories for Amnesty International USA and in that capacity, I visit my region of expertise when I can.

The Israeli army was there to 'keep order' by dispersing community members and supporters who had come to protest.

This scene is repeated in villages throughout the occupied territories every week - in Nil'in, Kufer Qadum, Al Ma'ssara, and Nabi Saleh, to name just a few.

Palestinians hold weekly non-violent demonstrations to demand an end to Israeli settlement expansion and related human rights violations. These demonstrations are frequently met with excessive or unnecessary force from Israeli security forces. Just three months prior to the protest I was observing in Bil'in, one of the young protest leaders from the village, Bassem Abu Rahme, was killed when a tear gas canister was fired directly at him. In the village of Nabi Saleh alone, two protestors have been killed, hundreds injured and scores arrested or detained, including children, during night raids.

I volunteer with Amnesty International so I can do more than observe abuses. Every year, Amnesty members hold a letter writing marathon, Write for Rights, around December 10th, which marks Human Rights Day. Amnesty members and supporters from around the world unite to write thousands of letters to officials on a handful of cases picked from the many we work on year round. We write on behalf of prisoners detained solely for peacefully expressing their beliefs, human rights defenders who are threatened because they stand up for their rights and the rights of others, and individuals or communities at risk of other grave human rights abuses.

Every year, we hear back from prisoners who say their treatment improved or they were released after officials realized that a global spotlight was being shone on their situation. We also hear from those who remained imprisoned. They tell us the many postcards and letters sent to them while detained gave them hope that they hadn't been forgotten. I personally received a phone call from a prisoner who wanted to thank me for helping end his torture. It wasn't me. I was only one node in a great big web of support that spans the globe. To me, this call reinforced the fact that we can all help - no matter who we are and where we live.

This year, the village of Nabi Saleh was selected as a case for Write for Rights. As in Bil'in, the five hundred and fifty people living in Nabi Saleh face frequent violent repression from the Israeli army just for practicing their human right to peacefully express their opposition to Israel's military occupation and the expansion of the nearby illegal Israeli settlement of Halamish.

Amnesty members and supporters wrote messages of solidarity to the villagers and letters to officials who have the power to end the unnecessary or excessive violence and bring those responsible for human rights violations to justice. We also wrote letters for other individuals in Mexico, Russia, Ethiopia, Egypt, China, Cambodia, Belarus and the United States whose human rights are being violated.

Amnesty International allows ordinary people like me to take action on behalf of other ordinary people who are caught up in situations they cannot control or for just exercising their human rights. This year, I hope my community in North Carolina will stand in solidarity with those suffering human rights abuses in other parts of the world, and help us save lives. I certainly will.