NABI SALEH, West Bank — Their faces covered in bandanas, a group of adolescent Palestinian boys led the march from the West Bank Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh toward the neighboring Jewish settlement of Halamish. Behind them was a large crowd of villagers — some older and some younger — activists and members of the media. Some were waving Palestinian flags; some were holding gas masks; many had cameras.
Down the road, Israeli Defense Forces soldiers awaited them, as they do every Friday, in an effort to prevent the demonstration from reaching Halamish and the main road.
This routine protest against settlement construction in Nabi Saleh set the stage for an incident that was caught on video and made news headlines worldwide: Palestinian women and children preventing an IDF soldier from arresting 12-year-old Muhammad Tamimi, who was suspected of stone-throwing. The altercation left the soldier with light wounds, and Israel with a black eye on the world stage.
Since Friday, images and video of the incident have flooded social media, triggering condemnation of the soldier’s actions and insistence on the ultimate futility of Israel’s military presence in the West Bank.
I was there with the media pool, working on a story for The Times of Israel about the larger dynamic between neighboring Palestinian villages and Jewish settlements. It was my first time at the weekly protest. For everyone else there, it was ritual. They greeted each other like members of a football team before taking the field.
Once I arrived at the demonstrators’ rendezvous, I asked someone standing next to me what to expect from the impending protest.
“We’ll start marching down the road, then the army will be waiting for us. Once we get to a certain point, they’ll start throwing tear gas at us, then kids will start throwing rocks at them on top of the hill,” he said. “And then it will go back and forth like that.
“And we’ll take lots of pictures,” he added.
At 1:06 p.m., the demonstration began in earnest, when the participants marched a few hundred meters down the road toward the soldiers, who formed a barricade. I couldn’t tell what came first, stone throwing or tear gas grenades, but soon there was a cacophony of both. As I was taking photographs, some of the tear gas hurled at the crowd got in my eyes.
“Don’t touch them,” someone told me. “The sting will fade, just wait it out.”
Meanwhile kids started running up a brown hill to throw more rocks at the soldiers, some with slingshots, some with their hands.
The exchange continued for a while, shifting locations several times.
At one point the demonstrators blocked the road. Little kids, under the leadership of the adolescents, began to take large rocks and line them up in the middle of the street.
“They are blocking the army’s jeeps from driving up the road to come from behind later,” someone told me.
The protest then shifted to an adjacent hill, where adolescents and younger children threw more rocks at soldiers as adult villagers and activists watched and cheered.
And then, suddenly, people started screaming. A team of soldiers had rushed the demonstrators from behind to start making arrests. At the same time, other soldiers ran up from the bottom of the hill and grabbed one of the adolescents.
A partially masked soldier with a rifle in his hand was chasing a younger boy whose arm was in a cast. I ran toward the fracas just as the soldier picked up the boy, grabbed him by the neck and pressed him against a rock, putting him in a chokehold while he lay on top of him. A young girl, Ahed Tamimi, the boy’s 15-year-old sister, then ran to the scene and began yelling and crying, pleading with the soldier to let him go.
Everyone who had a camera ran to the scene, too, with photographers and videographers forming a half-circle around the melee. At that point, the soldier must have realized that whatever he chose to do would live beyond that moment.
An older female villager — Nariman Tamimi, the boy’s mother — came from behind the soldier and began pulling him off the boy. The soldier screamed for help as more people joined the effort. He then tried simultaneously to pin the boy down and fight off everyone else. The young girl bit his hand when he tried to grab her by the neck. Everyone around him then started to hit the soldier on the head.
Finally, his commander came and extricated him from the imbroglio.
Before walking away, the soldier dropped a tear gas grenade where all the people were gathered. I ran to spare my eyes from the stinging, and by the time I reached a far enough vantage point to look back, people were carrying the boy back to his home in the village.
The soldier and his commander had left without making the arrest.
Ten minutes later, almost all of the demonstrators were outside the boy’s home. Someone from the Palestine Red Crescent Society was making calls about two other demonstrators who had been detained. While the boy was lying down, people tried to comfort him and see if he was all right.
The Red Crescent worker then showed the boy pictures he took of the incident. “Good job,” he told the child. He then got up to talk with other activists and journalists about getting to Ramallah and disseminating the photos and video.
“We got them,” he said.