Two Palestinian activists went on trial in an Israeli military court on Tuesday over their involvement in weekly demonstrations against a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank.
Rights groups and activists say the prosecution of Nariman Tamimi and Rana Hamadeh comes amid an uptick of Israeli arrests in recent weeks of Palestinian protest organisers.
The decision to put the two women on trial was unusual since charges against them focus on their entry to a “closed military zone” during a protest in Nabi Saleh village on June 28, an offence that rarely leads to prosecution in court.
“They have been denied the basic human right to peacefully protest over land illegally seized by Israeli settlers, and the Israeli judiciary has used spurious legal tools to punish them,” Amnesty International said in a statement.
Villagers began organising protests every Friday after Israelis from the Halamish settlement took control of a spring between the two communities in 2009, which they say deprived them of a source of irrigation.
The protests typically involve flag-waving and rock-throwing by the Palestinian side, which is met by tear gas, rubber bullets and even live ammunition by the Israeli army.
Two Palestinians have been shot dead by soldiers since the protests began, including Nariman’s brother Rushdi in November.
During the confrontations, the Israeli army restricts access to the village and declares it a “closed military zone.”
The Israeli military did not immediately comment.
Sarit Michaeli of Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said the pair’s trial is expected to last months and is part of Israeli policies which “makes it virtually impossible for Palestinians to legally demonstrate”.
The court on Tuesday released Tamimi on bail but mandated that she stay inside her house each Friday and barred Hamadeh from entering Nabi Saleh on Fridays while the trial continues.
In the last week, Israel arrested two other prominent activists in the West Bank villages of Bil’in and Beit Ummar, who organise protests as part of a strategy dubbed “popular resistance” blessed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel has occupied the West Bank and sown it widely with Jewish settlements since capturing it in the 1967 Middle East war along with East Jerusalem and Gaza - land Palestinians want for a future state.
Most countries consider the settlements illegal. Israel, which disputes this, cites historical and Biblical links to the West Bank and Jerusalem.