Issa Amro’s plight highlights Israel’s intolerance of even nonviolent protest

Raja Shehadeh

The Guardian  /  January 29, 2021

The Al-Khalil-Hebron-based activist spurned violence in his campaign against illegal settlements in the West Bank but still faces jail.

The conviction of a long-time proponent of nonviolence from the beleaguered city of Hebron reveals Israel’s intolerance of any Palestinian resistance to its settlements, violent or nonviolent.

On 6 January, Issa Amro, a UN-recognised human rights defender, and the founder and coordinator of Youth Against Settlements, a Hebron-based group, was convicted in an Israeli military court near Ramallah on six counts. He was first put on trial in 2016 on 18 charges dating back to 2010, including incitement, insulting a soldier and participating in a march without a permit. He had been taking part in a peaceful protest calling for the reopening of Shuhada Street, the former commercial centre of Hebron. The delay in bringing him to trial was probably due to his high profile and support from human right groups in Israel and around the world.

Amro, whose family is said to have lived in Hebron for more than 10 generations, was born just a few hundred metres from where Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinians at prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994.

Following the violent period of the second intifada (2000-2004), Israel restricted Palestinian movement by placing more than 500 roadblocks throughout the West Bank. Now that the country is living through one of the least violent periods in its history, what justification remains for keeping most of these restrictions in place?

The most extreme example of these obstacles to movement is in the Old City of Hebron, a once vibrant centre for trade and commerce serving a population of 220,000 Palestinians from the city and its surrounding villages. This historic area is now termed H2, home to several hundred Jewish settlers – in violation of international law – where in one square kilometre there are 21 permanently staffed checkpoints. Palestinians are completely barred from using Shuhada Street.

Hebron’s Old City, where 35,000 Palestinians lived, was once a major tourist attraction with a history of Islamic pilgrimage for many centuries. What I saw when I visited in 2019 was a deserted city with most of its shops closed. Some of the closed doors were overgrown with ivy and other climbers. Netting was placed overhead to protect the occasional passer-by from the missiles of rubbish the settlers in their rooftop apartments throw down on the street. Many of the Palestinian houses had been abandoned. I walked through its attractive souks and all I could see were the occasional settlers and Israeli soldiers, heavily armed, prowling the streets and manning the checkpoints. The once vibrant city was practically deserted.

Devoid of any security rationale for these extreme restrictions in the Old City of Hebron, the old justification is disappearing and being replaced by an ideological factor, which boils down to who is allowed to live in the Old City of Hebron and who isn’t. There is no indication that the settlers living there are prepared to coexist as good neighbours to the Palestinians. Any resistance to their actions or even the reporting of these is deemed illegitimate by Israel, which takes measures to stop it. When the country refused to renew the mandate of the international observer group TIPH (Temporary International Presence in Hebron), the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced that “we will not allow the presence of an international force that operates against us”.

It takes strong conviction to face such injustice and respond to it with nonviolence. This kind of resistance marked the first Palestinian intifada (1987-1993). After 2000, many have tried shooting and stabbing soldiers and settlers. Amro has called for, and practised, nonviolent resistance, and Israel is bent on stopping him.

It is not difficult to drum up charges against a Palestinian living in the occupied territories. One of the charges against Amro was insulting a soldier who took his identity card. Amro says he asked the soldier for his card back and said: “I’m not on any wanted list, and if you had called to check you would know this. But you have not called, I know, I’m not stupid.” The soldier insists that Amro called him stupid.

As in this and other charges against the Palestinian accused in an Israeli military court, it’s his word against that of the Israeli soldier. The final arbiter is an Israeli military judge.

After a long delay in bringing this case to trial, it has now been heard before Lt Col Menachem Lieberman, who happens to live in a settlement. He will decide on the sentencing on 8 February. If Amro is put behind bars, as expected, his nonviolent struggle will have to be suspended. And Israel would have succeeded in criminalising nonviolent resistance by one of its main proponents among Palestinians.

In the face of such odds against him, his only hope now is to get the support of those who believe in the cause of justice and the path of nonviolence as the only hope to combat the injustice taking place in the heart of this ancient city.

Raja Shehadeh is a Palestinian lawyer and writer, and founder of the human rights organisation Al-Haq; his most recent book, Going Home: A Walk Through Fifty Years of Occupation, won the 2020 Moore prize