In the first visit of its kind, the United Kingdom’s Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt traveled on Thursday to Nabi Salih, 20 km. northwest of Ramallah, and threw his support behind its weekly protests against “the occupation.”

When Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague visited the region in November 2010, he met with Palestinian activists in Ramallah.

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But the more junior Burt’s visit on Thursday marks the first time that any British minister has gone to Nabi Salih, or any other place in the West Bank where Palestinians have routinely clashed with the IDF.

Although the rallies, which began in December 2009, were sparked by a dispute over a nearby spring, they have evolved into a weekly protest against settlements and the “occupation” of the West Bank.

Standing on the edge of the village and looking out at the spring, Burt told The Jerusalem Post that the UK has clearly stated it regards “settlements on occupied land as illegal.

“For that reason we support peaceful nonviolent protests by villages [like Nabi Salih] who feel that their rights have been affected,” he said.

While in Nabi Salih, Burt was shown a video of the IDF response to the weekly protests that included the use of tear gas and skunk water.

“From what I have seen and heard from villagers, clearly it is a situation of great concern. I have seen film which appears to show Israeli Defense Forces acting in a very strong manner against peaceful protesters, against women and children,” he said.

“Some scenes are extremely disturbing and indicate activity, which is highly questionable, worryingly,” Burt said.

The best way to solve the problem in Nabi Salih, he continued, is through a negotiated two-state solution.

“Only a negotiated settlement will bring an end to the agony of villages here and the disputes over land,” Burt said.

During his visit, he met with the wife of Bassem Tamimi. Villagers also spoke with him about Bassem’s cousin Naji Tamini. Both men were arrested in March on charges of organizing unauthorized processions, incitement and solicitation to throw stones.

The UK is looking to promote the cause of both men as human rights defenders.

Israeli security sources told the Post in response that the police and the courts had proof that these men were not human rights activists, but rather instigators of riots against the IDF.

Jonathan Pollak, from the Popular Coordination Struggle Committee, said that a lot of work has been done to highlight the “persecution of such protesters” with European consulates.

EU officials have made strong statements against the treatment of protesters in neighboring countries, Pollak said.

In light of the Arab Spring, it will now be hard for them to ignore the Israeli treatment of Palestinian protesters, he added.

Pollak said that every Friday, protesters gather in the village in hopes of marching down to the nearby spring.

Their path is always blocked by the IDF, which closes off the village, he said. Most of the violence against protesters takes place in the village, he said.

British officials told the Post that two weeks ago, a delegation of EU officials came to observe the protests and saw the IDF use tear gas against the activists.

According to Pollak, the IDF has arrested 76 protesters there since 2010, of whom 18 were minors.

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