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Palestinian protest leader's case sparks scrutiny

The tiny courtroom at an Israeli army base was packed with European diplomats, straining to follow proceedings in Hebrew and Arabic through translators whispering into their ears.

The target of such unprecedented interest was Abdullah Abu Rahmeh, a leader of Palestinian protests against Israel's West Bank separation barrier who has been feted by some in the international community, from European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, as a courageous defender of human rights.

Israel views the West Bank school teacher as an instigator of violence and wants to keep him in prison, even though he has completed his yearlong sentence. Israel says the demonstrations are violent riots since some of the marchers routinely throw stones at Israeli troops.

However, prominent figures in the international community have embraced the demonstrations as peaceful resistance to Israel's 43-year military occupation, and say Israel's crackdown is an attempt to stifle dissent.

The conflicting views on the anti-barrier protests are part of a growing list of issues, foremost among them continued settlement construction, on which Israel's hard-line government seems to find itself at odds with members of the international community — at a time when U.S.-led efforts to reach a peace deal have stalled.

The 39-year-old Abu Rahmeh led an ordinary life until six years ago when the barrier threatened his village, Bilin, said his wife, Majda, who attended her husband's court hearing Monday at the Ofer army base in the West Bank.

Israel started building the barrier in 2002, at the height of an armed Palestinian uprising, portraying it as a temporary shield against attackers.

Today, the barrier, two-thirds complete, stretches hundreds of miles (kilometers) and meanders into the West Bank to place Jewish settlements on the "Israeli" side. It has cut off scores of Palestinian villages, including Bilin, from their land in the process. In 2004, it was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in a nonbinding ruling.

Since 2005, Abu Rahmeh and other Bilin residents — along with Israeli and international activists — have marched every Friday from the village mosque down a rocky slope to the barrier — making the village a symbol for a new type of Palestinian resistance.

Protests against the barrier spread to other West Bank villages, with marchers walking toward Israeli forces near the barrier, some of them routinely throwing stones.

The weekly marches largely signaled an end to five years of an armed uprising during which Palestinian militants had killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and shootings.

Palestinian leaders latched on to the movement. Israeli peace activists, who had largely stayed home during the armed uprising, took to the streets again, in part encouraged by the Bilin model.

"It started as an idea, without any previous plan," Majda Abu Rahmeh said, adding that she doubted her husband would ever quit. "He has a lot of endurance, and can continue doing the same thing.

Often, the marches escalate into confrontations.

Israeli troops have responded to stones with tear gas, stun grenades, rubber-coated steel pellets and occasional live rounds. They've sprayed foul-smelling water or deployed the "screamer" whose ear-piercing sounds sent protesters fleeing.

In all, 20 Palestinians, 10 of them minors, have been killed in anti-barrier protests, Israeli activist Jonathan Pollak said, estimating that thousands more have been hurt. Israel's military has said rock-throwing endangers troops, and that some of its forces also have been injured.

Israel says it has no problem with peaceful protests. "No one is trying to quell the protests as such," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. "The only thing that cannot be tolerated is the deliberate use of violence."

However, critics say Israel is cracking down hard in order to deter others. Israeli forces have detained more than 300 activists alone from Bilin and two other villages, said Pollak. The rate of arrests accelerated in 2009.

Abu Rahmeh was arrested Dec. 10, 2009 and convicted of incitement and participation in illegal protests. He was to be released Nov. 18, but the prosecutor appealed for an extension, saying the original sentence wasn't harsh enough. Abu Rahmeh will remain in custody until the judge rules on the prosecutor's appeal.

Carter and fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, part of a group of former leaders known as The Elders, on Monday condemned the attempt to keep Abu Rahmeh in prison. Carter said his "example of nonviolent resistance against the occupation is a model that others should follow."

Abu Rahmeh's lawyer, Gaby Lasky, said the legal campaign is an admission of failure.

"Since the state has not been able to break the nonviolent demonstrations (by force), it has decided to break them in legal terms, trying to keep the leaders behind bars," she said.

International concern for Abu Rahmeh's fate was apparent Monday.

Diplomats from Britain, Germany, France, Denmark, Belgium, Spain, Malta and an EU representative watched as Abu Rahmeh was led into the courtroom, wearing a brown prison uniform. A guard removed his handcuffs, but not his leg shackles. Abu Rahmeh smiled shyly at his wife, Majda.

Some diplomats took notes. The British consul general, Vincent Fean, noted that Abu Rahmeh had completed his sentence and expressed hope the legal proceedings will be wrapped up quickly.

"Thank you for taking the time to come," Abu Rahmeh told Fean during a break, then exchanged a few furtive words with Majda, whom guards had ordered to sit in the back to prevent contact.