On Wednesday, political activist Issa Amro once again pleaded innocent to the charges being brought against him. This time, though, he wasn’t in an Israeli military court, but a Palestinian court in Hebron.
It’s the Palestinian security apparatus that stands behind the charges brought against the 40-year-old activist and founder of the Youth Against Settlements group. This group has successfully drawn international attention to the violence perpetrated by settlers in Hebron’s Old City, the segregationist Israeli regime in the West Bank city and the eviction of Palestinians.
On January 6, an Israeli military court convicted him of nonviolent, long-term resistance to the occupation. So what serious crime has he committed in the Palestinian Authority’s eyes that even his important work instilling the concept of popular struggle can’t atone for? What could he possibly have done so wrong that in recent years Fatah officials in Hebron have been conducting a smear campaign against him?
It doesn’t seem to matter that he has been detained dozens of times by the Israeli army – sometimes for a few hours, sometimes days – or that he’s been attacked both physically and verbally by settlers.
Palestinian residents of the city have been warned that if they continued to work with him, they’d be fired from their jobs with the PA. A flyer from February 2019, signed by Fatah in Hebron, called to boycott him. The city’s settlers got hold of the flyer, translated it and then happily tweeted it to others.
Amro’s lawyer, Gaby Lasky, says: “What’s worrisome is that there is a critical activist and both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, have decided to make his life difficult.”
What could explain the seemingly joint interests of the PA and the Israel Defense Forces? A longtime member of Fatah said: “There are those among us who are jealous of Amro, because he and his colleagues have achieved things and have garnered international attention. Instead of working together, we’re dismantling and crumbling and competing with one another. And another thing: The army doesn’t want there to be unrest in Hebron’s Old City, and the Palestinian security apparatus – which is made up of Fatah members – listens to the army.”
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Amro was detained three-and-a-half years ago by the PA’s Preventive Security Force, for a week, on suspicion of fomenting sectarian strife, insulting senior officials and threatening public order with his online activity. The first two violations are listed in the Jordanian Penal Code from 1960, which is still valid in the West Bank. The third violation is cited in the PA’s Electronic Crimes Law, which was signed by presidential order in 2017.
The law has been slightly amended since then following public criticism of how it undermines freedom of expression, But that didn’t affect Amro’s case, even though there were senior Fatah officials who had promised him the case would be closed.
In a restrained and polite Facebook post in September 2017, Amro criticized the arrest of a journalist (a Fatah supporter, incidentally) by the PA. The journalist’s sin was that he had demanded the resignation of PA President Mahmoud Abbas and then-Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, for their inability to prevent Israeli raids on PA institutions, including the radio station from which he broadcast.
The journalist was long ago released. But since then, Amro has had to appear once every month to six weeks at court in Hebron for another hearing that was repeatedly postponed because the Palestinian prosecution hadn’t completed work on the indictment. This happened again and again.
At the same time, Amro has had to present himself to the Israeli military court at the Ofer military base southwest of Ramallah. Dozens of hearings in one place over three years; dozens of hearings in the other over four years. He and his lawyers have stopped counting.
On February 8, the Israeli military court is scheduled to sentence him, after Judge Lt. Col. Menahem Lieberman convicted him of six of the 18 counts against him: Three marches without permits; twice obstructing the actions of a policeman and soldier (for refusing to leave the place he was standing); and one assault, in 2010, of Kiryat Arba’s security coordinator.
Amro and Lasky say it was exactly the opposite: The settlers, who were protesting the demolition of an illegal outpost, had attacked the home of a Palestinian family. Amro was summoned to the scene to film the incident with his camera, and it was the security coordinator who hit him. Amro even filed a complaint. But the Israel Police detained him for five days, alleging that he had assaulted the security coordinator.
No charges were immediately filed against Amro. The allegation remained dormant until the military prosecution issued a lengthy indictment against him in 2016.
“I expected them to convict me on those counts where I had no photographic documentation that could confirm my claims,” Amro told Haaretz. “When there’s no picture, it’s their word against mine – that’s the military method. That’s why I was convicted of the six counts.”
‘How to make a revolution’
Amro was born in a home owned by his family in the center of old Hebron. His education did not prepare him for the path of popular resistance. “All I knew was studies and games,” he recounts. “After 1948, my grandfather smuggled food and other products to and from Gaza, and he was killed by Israeli military fire when he crossed the border. During the war of 1967, my father was seriously wounded. His family hid in the hills and he went riding on a donkey to bring them food when a soldier shot him. So he wrapped us, his children, in cotton wool; he didn’t want us involved in political matters.”
The first time Amro realized something was fundamentally askew in their lives was when Dr. Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque [the Tomb of the Patriarchs] during Ramadan of 1994. Nevertheless, he kept at his studies, registered to study engineering at the Palestine Polytechnic University in Hebron and continued to study in the shadow of the second intifada. The change came in 2003, when the IDF closed the university.
“I decided to resist; not the occupation but the shutdown. Because it was against my personal interest, I was in my last half year of my studies. My dream was to finish my studies and move on, and here they were, messing up my plans. I cried a bit, and then started to search on Yahoo for ‘How to make a revolution.’ The names of Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Gene Sharp came up. I also looked for a Muslim activist who championed nonviolent resistance.” He then read about Bacha Khan (Abdul Ghaffar Khan) of India, who worked against British colonial rule.
In the spirit of civil disobedience, Amro and his friends entered the locked campus, cleaned it and taught the younger students.
“I met Huwaida Arraf [a Palestinian American who was one of the organizers of popular resistance activities in the 2000s] and she taught me a lot about strategies for nonviolent struggle,” he says. Before the human rights nonprofit B’Tselem began doing so, he was distributing cameras to Hebron residents so they could document the behavior of the settlers and the army.
In 2006, the army left a home in Tel Rumeida that had served as a military position for five years. Amro rented it from its owners and turned it into a center for activities, meetings and enrichment classes for children. He called it Sumud (Steadfastness) House. This center was a thorn in the side of Hebron’s Jews. In October 2010, on the Srugim website, someone wrote: “In the house adjacent to the spring there are intensive activities by lawbreaking anarchists headed by Issa Amro, who regularly incites against the Jewish community in Hebron. The community demands the immediate closure of Issa Amro’s incitement center.”
One of Amro’s convictions was for what was dubbed the Obama and Martin Luther King demonstration. In March 2013, Amro and his colleagues organized a march through Hebron’s Old City in which they wore Barack Obama and King Jr. masks, and sang songs from the U.S. civil rights movement. Israeli activists also participated in the march, which was forcefully dispersed.
“The settlers attacked us, and the army arrested us immediately,” Amro recalls. Three Israelis who were arrested were released that same day; the three Palestinians arrested were released three days later.
Now Amro is preparing himself emotionally for whatever sentence the military court will mete out. It’s hard to know when and how the saga in the Palestinian court will end. In any event, Amro continues to make his polite but resolute voice heard on Facebook. On January 20, he allowed himself to give Abbas some advice, telling him not to run for president again, to leave the hardships of politics to younger people, and to retire and spend time with his family and grandchildren.