Human Rights Defender
By David Kattenburg
Think back. When was the last time you read or heard a story in the media about some Palestinian person living under permanent Israeli occupation in the “West Bank” — what Israelis refer to as “Judea” and “Samaria”?
If anything comes to mind, chances are it was a story about some young woman or man gunned down in the midst of an alleged knife or car ramming attack on an unsuspecting Israeli soldier or settler, who perhaps was injured in the incident, but more likely escaped unscathed.
If this was a mainstream media story, that would have been that. If it came to you from Ha’aretz, 972mag.com, Ma’an, Electronic Intifada or Mondoweiss, you would likely have learned that the assailant was left to bleed out on the pavement as soldiers and police idled around nearby, barring Palestinian medics from the scene.
Now ask yourself, when was the last time you heard in the news about some Palestinian man or woman struggling for dignity and freedom in completely peaceful fashion, but who nonetheless faced endless harassment, violence, and imprisonment? Likely not in years — if ever.
And yet, countless people of this sort can be found up and down Palestine, from Jenin, Tulkarem, and Qalqilya in the north, through Nabi Saleh, Bi’lin, Ramallah and East Jerusalem, down to Hebron, the ocher, knife-edged south Hebron hills and the scorched Negev.
Issa Amro is one of them. The 36 year-old human rights activist — founder and coordinator of a Hebron group called Youth Against Settlements (YAS) — has been charged with a host of crimes by Israeli occupation authorities, and ordered to appear before a military court on November 23. Amro faces up to three years in jail.
I sat down with Issa Amro back in May, in an apartment in Hebron. He was drawing signs, calling on tourists to avoid AirBNB. Listen to our conversation.
Listening to Issa Amro’s story, it’s hard not to conclude that Palestinians are living under apartheid. Nowhere is the label more compelling than in Hebron, where an estimated nine thousand Jewish settlers enjoy all the rights, freedoms and protections Israel accords to its Jewish citizens, in the midst of 170,000 stateless Palestinians, subjected day and night to the administrative and military laws of Israeli belligerent occupation.
Under the terms of the 1997 Hebron Accords, Hebron was divided into two zones. An estimated 140,000 Palestinians live in “H-1,” under the nominal governance of Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority. (although Israeli soldiers and police are free to move through H-1 at will, without consulting Palestinian authorities, and they do.)
Another 30,000 Palestinians live within Israeli-controlled H-2, encompassing Hebron’s old city, Ibrahimi mosque and the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba. In their midst, some eight hundred Jews live in a handful of enclaves, heavily defended by a couple thousand Israeli soldiers and police with whom they routinely fraternize and collaborate, and to whom the most powerful settlers occasionally issue instructions. Hebron’s settlers are reputed to be among the most militant of the West Bank’s estimated 600,000 settlers.
Once a bustling neighborhood, the commercial heart of old Hebron, between Al-Shuhada Street and the Ibrahimi Mosque, is off limits to the three hundred Palestinian families living in this part of H-2. Shops and homes have been welded shut. Those who continue living there — and there are quite a few — play cat and mouse games with soldiers and police in order to come and go. Jewish settlers and internationals, on the other hand, are allowed to freely move through the neighborhood.
Above Shuhada Street, on Tel Rumeida, a gorgeous, wind swept hill covered in olive trees and wild scrub overlooking the old city, crisscrossed by dirt paths and dotted with homes, two hundred Palestinians face constant threat of assault by a couple dozen settlers, and banishment by soldiers and police.
Tel Rumeida has been the scene of much of Issa Amro’s activist work. When Israeli authorities closed his university in 2003, Amro founded a group called Youth Against Settlements (YAS). In Amro’s little house at the top of Tel Rumeida, a “non-violence center” was established, where peaceful community self-defence actions were cooked up. YAS’s “Open the Street” campaign called for an end to Al-Shuhada street’s closure, and the return of Palestinians to their homes and shops. Activists camped out in front of Checkpoint 56, separating H-1 from Shuhada street. A kindergarten was launched. Olive harvest campaigns brought Israelis, internationals and locals together in the fall. They filmed police and soldiers, circulating their news videos through social media.
Lately, YAS has been trying to establish a little cinema on Tel Rumeida, in an empty space that had been closed by Israeli authorities.
Needless to say, pushback has been intense. Amro and his friends have been verbally insulted, attacked and arrested, he says. At one point, settlers and soldiers seized YAS’s headquarters. Last December, as the so-called “Knife Intifada” gathered force throughout Palestine, Hebron was a hot spot. Of the over two hundred Palestinians killed since September 2015, dozens were from Hebron. Among these was Abed al-Fatah a-Sharif, shot in the head while lying prostrate on the ground by Israeli soldier Elor Azaria, now on trial for murder. In December 2015, Tel Rumeida was declared a “closed military zone.” Locals were assigned numbers, and were not allowed to receive visitors. The military closure was suspended for a period in May 2016, but movement is now restricted once more.
Last month, Issa Amro was ordered to appear before a military court in Ofer, just outside Ramallah. The eighteen charges against him include “incitement,” organizing illegal actions and activities, being in a closed military zone and insulting police. Amro’s Israeli lawyer, Gabi Lasky, has told him he faces up to three years in jail. Amro’s hearing, scheduled for November 23, will be attended by US State Department and European officials, he says. Listen to us talk about the upcoming trial. Part one of our conversation:
Issa has no illusions about the outcome of his trial. “It’s double standards,” he says in this audio story. “It’s apartheid; it’s inequality, discrimination. So this is what is happening, and the military court can tell me to do anything they want. I don’t know what to do, really.”
But Amro is buoyed by the righteousness of his cause — defending not only Palestinian civil and human rights, but their very identity — and by the sincerity of the Palestinian people. “The people, especially in Hebron, are very generous; very kind. and they love to live peacefully in their homes. And security for them is a mutual concept. They want security, as everyone wants security. That is their message to everybody. in the world. You’re more than welcome to come to visit us in our houses. We will offer you free food, free drinks and even a free tour to the city.”
Issa Amro’s description of Palestinian hospitality is a far cry from the image depicted in the mass media. Click on the play button on this photo.