Palestinian activist Issa Amro defiant over ‘baseless’ conviction by Israeli court

Palestinian activist Issa Amro speaks to journalists after he was released on bail by a Palestinian court, in the West Bank city of Al-Khalil Hebron (AFP)

Akram al-Waara

Middle East Eye  /  January 6, 2021

An Israeli military court convicted Amro on charges dating back to 2010, which the activist says is an attempt to silence all resistance against the occupation.

Following a four-year legal battle in Israeli military courts, Palestinian activist Issa Amro has been convicted on six counts related to his activism in the occupied West Bank, including in his hometown of Al-Khalil-Hebron.

Amro, an internationally recognised activist and proponent of non-violent resistance, was convicted by an Israeli judge at the Ofer military court on Wednesday on three counts of “participating in a rally without a permit”, two counts of “obstructing a soldier”, and one count of “assault.”

The convictions surround Amro’s participation in a number of peaceful protests and demonstrations spanning all the way back to 2010. The obstruction charge relates to a sit-in protest in 2012, during which Amro and other activists called for the reopening of the Hebron municipality building, while the assault charge accuses Amro of “shoving” a soldier in a 2010 case that had previously been closed by Israeli authorities.

Amro’s legal team denounced the “absurdity” of the assault charge, highlighting the fact that the soldiers’ claims were not only “unverifiable” but took place 10 years ago, in a situation where Amro was allegedly injured by the same soldier who accused him of assault.

When Amro filed a complaint against the soldier, Israeli authorities took no conclusive action on the matter, and the soldier was not held accountable.

Amnesty International called the charges against Amro “baseless” and doubled down on its calls for Israel to drop all charges against Amro, which the organisation described as “a campaign of persecution” against the activist.

The court scheduled Amro’s sentencing hearing for 8 February, after which time his legal team is expected to file an appeal. Amro’s team expressed concerns to Middle East Eye that he could be facing a significant sentence, and that “imprisonment is not ruled out”.

A targeted campaign

After the trial, Amro’s lawyer – Israeli attorney Gaby Lasky – said “the [indictment for nonviolent protest] is an example of how the courts are used in order to deter the important voices of human rights defenders”, and accused the military court of being “just an organ of occupation”.

“Today Israel announced that Palestinians are not allowed to peacefully protest the Israeli occupation without a permit from the occupier,” Amro said in a statement after the hearing.

“This conviction is the military system against the Palestinian nonviolent resistance. It aims to suppress my voice and end all activism against the Israeli occupation.”

Amro is the co-founder of Youth Against Settlements (YAS), a group of nonviolent Palestinian activists in the flashpoint city of Hebron in the southern West Bank.

The group’s campaigns have attracted global attention to the situation in Hebron’s Old City, where the lives of the Palestinian population are controlled by a network of military checkpoints, hundreds of armed Israeli soldiers, and violent Israeli settlers.

Hebron resistance

For years, the group has stood as one of the main points of resistance against settlement expansion and land confiscation in Hebron and daily settler attacks against the local population.

As a result, many of Hebron’s Palestinian activists, including Amro, have been subjected to physical attacks and harassment on part of the soldiers and settlers – many of whom know Amro by name.

“I began my activism in 2003, and since then you can say I have gotten used to being arrested and attacked by the occupation,” Amro told MEE the day before his trial.

Amro has been arrested and detained so many times, he said, that he’s lost track.

“I think I have more than 55 charges against me on my file,” he said, adding that many of the charges against him are over staging or participating in demonstrations, which the army consider violations of military orders in the area.

“Every time they would arrest me, they would put some baseless charges against me, but eventually release me because they didn’t have any evidence to follow up on those charges,” Amro said.

So in 2016, when Amro was summoned to military court and presented with an indictment of 18 charges against him, spanning from 2010 to 2016, he said he was “shocked”.

In a number of the charges, Amro is accused of assaulting soldiers or settlers, in incidents when Amro says the settlers and soldiers themselves were the aggressors.

In one charge dating back to 2010, a private security guard for one of the settlements in Hebron claimed Amro slapped him, but Amro says it was the other way around.

“I was surprised to see the prosecution bringing all these witnesses against me, soldiers and settlers who had the baseless claims against me from years ago,” Amro said, adding that he felt it was “very clear they were trying to punish me for my activism”.

“They have brought 38 witnesses against me, many of whom are settlers in Hebron who have personal issues with me,” he said.

“They have called on (Israel’s) Civil Administration officials, army soldiers, border police, settlers, the private security of the settlement – all the elements of the occupation. That’s the type of ideology I’m up against.”

Despite the arbitrary nature of the charges against him, Amro told MEE that he fears he will be handed a harsh sentence, because the military court – which has over a 99 percent conviction rate against Palestinians – “wants to send a message, and use me as an example.”

Far-reaching consequences

Since his trial began in 2016, Amro has received an outpouring of support from international organisations and leaders, who have called on Israel to drop the charges against him.

In 2019, UN special rapporteurs called for Amro’s protection and expressed “concern” over the charges, and in 2017, 35 US House representatives and four senators, including Bernie Sanders, sent letters to Israeli authorities highlighting the fact that many of the charges against Amro were not “internationally recognisable offences”.

Amnesty International said it would consider Amro a “prisoner of conscience” if he was convicted, and has expressed fears that Amro’s conviction would lead to further suppression of Palestinian voices against the occupation.

“Such attacks are an assault on the right to freedom of expression. The international community must act now to stop this campaign of repression and work to ensure that human rights defenders and activists in Israel and the (occupied Palestinian territories) are protected from arbitrary interference in their work,” the organisation said.

It’s a sentiment that Amro himself shares. He told MEE that he believes he is being used as an example, “to instill fear in other activists who resist the occupation”.

“Under the military system, we don’t have the basic human right to stage protests, even if they are peaceful. We are not allowed to say no to the occupation. We live under the military law without any basic rights,” Amro said.

“I am like every Palestinian; we suffer a lot from the Israeli occupation, in our work, education, our community activism, anything we do, the occupation controls all aspects of our life,” he said.

“And there are many other Palestinians like me who are sitting in jail simply for resisting this occupation.”

Amro urged the international community to not only shed light on his case, but to “support and defend” all the other Palestinian human rights activists and defenders who are being targeted for their work.

“They are trying to shut me up, and silence all the other Palestinian voices,” he said. “But no matter what they do, we will not be silenced.”

Akram al-Waara is a Palestinian freelance video journalist based out of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank