RAMALLAH, West Bank — Two Palestinian women 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 has coincided with a rise in Israeli arrests of Palestinian protest organizers in recent weeks.
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 the village of Nabi Saleh on June 28, an offense that rarely leads to prosecution in court.
It is even rarer for Israel to prosecute Palestinian women.
"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 organizing 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 stone-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."
An Israeli military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, said the women had "participated in an unlawful disruption of the public order, ignored specific instructions of law enforcement officers and therefore were detained."
Lerner said the military had taken "necessary action to restore security" after the violence resulting from the protest threatened the safety of civilians on a nearby road.
Sarit Michaeli of Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said the trial is expected to last months and that it is part of Israeli policies which "make it virtually impossible for Palestinians to legally demonstrate."
The two defendants are free on bail while the trial continues but Tamimi has been ordered to stay at home every Friday and Hamadeh may not enter Nabi Saleh on Fridays.
In the past week, Israel arrested two other prominent activists in the West Bank villages of Bil'in and Beit Ummar who organize 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 the Gaza Strip - land Palestinians want for a future state.
Most countries consider the settlements illegal. Israel disputes this, citing historical and Biblical links to the West Bank and Jerusalem.
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