Israel Puts Celebrated Palestinian Activist On Trial
On November 23, the long-delayed trial of human rights defender Issa Amro began in a military court in the occupied West Bank. Charges against Amro, a 36-year-old Palestinian activist who heads the non-violent human rights group, Youth Against Settlements, stem from 18 alleged crimes stretching back three years. Among the charges— “insulting” an Israeli officer. Other changes include organizing demonstrations and “incitement,” a catch-all term that has been particularly used to arrest and detain people for postings on social media. What is highly significant in this case is that by reaching back this far in time and gathering together these charges in one bundle, what were relatively minor “crimes” are now consolidated into charges that can earn him a much longer sentence. Haaretz calls the charges against him an “unusually broad” indictment. Amro faces up to three years in prison. His attorney, Gabby Lasky, has submitted a motion to have 14 of the 18 charged dismissed on the grounds that those charges are several years old and in some cases the charges were already investigated and closed without indictment. Issa Amro’s arrest has garnered international attention—many see it as one of the most serious examples of Israel’s intent to clamp down on all forms of resistance—violent or non-violent. The hearings promise to be a landmark legal battle over what Israel will permit in terms of peaceful protest and the consequences that face those who engage in it.
Over several years Amro’s work has been recognized and commended by the international community. In 2010 he was named Human Rights Defender of the Year for Palestine by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in 2011 he was a guest of the US State Department as part of their International Visitor Leadership Program, and in 2013 Amro was declared a Human Rights Defender by the European Union, testifying that year and the next before the United Nations. In a 2015 op-ed he wrote for The Guardian, Amro explained how he became involved in activism and how he adopted the tactics of others to use in his struggle for Palestinian rights, “I read books by Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. I became convinced that their non-violent method was the best strategy for community resistance.”
Thus it is not surprising that this case is being monitored carefully. Present at the trial were representatives from the embassies and consulates of the US, UK, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Also in attendance were representatives from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch and other international organizations.
According to Ariel Gold of CODEPINK, “the US State Department said that they have been aware of and are following his case due both to all of the international attention and because that have received requests from congressional representatives to support him. They expressed a strong interest in supporting Issa Amro. I requested that they have Secretary Kerry make a statement acknowledging that Amro is a recognized human rights defender and should not face political persecution. They said that there was a strong possibility that this could happen.” She added, “On October 25, 2016 Amro had an in-person meeting in New York City with the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Michael Lynk, to discuss the situation in Hebron and his pending charges. Mr. Lynk indicated that he will likely put out an urgent appeal and press release calling for Mr. Amro’s protection.”
In the spring, Amnesty International issued a statement condemning the Israeli government’s stepped-up harassment of Palestinian human rights activists, including Youth Against Settlements, entitled, “Israeli government must cease intimidation of human rights defenders, protect them from attacks.” Now it has issued a strong statement calling on Israel to “drop baseless charges.”
Magdalena Mugrabi, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa says “Issa Amro has faced a sustained campaign of harassment and assault at the hands of the Israeli military and settlers because of his activism. His case is emblematic of the climate of increasing hostility towards activists who protest the settlements, which are illegal under international law.” She added, “The deluge of charges against Issa Amro does not stand up to any scrutiny. In their determination to silence him and stifle his human rights work, the Israeli authorities have apparently even reopened a closed case file. If he is convicted we will consider Issa Amro a prisoner of conscience.”
Israel’s pressure on human rights work was dramatically in evidence last December, when a group of young Palestinian human rights workers were attacked for protesting Israel’s expansive, and illegal, settlement building. Israel conducted raids on the homes of members of this group and “prevented journalists, human rights activists, lawyers and others from access to the organization’s members and center, effectively sealing them off and at the same time leaving them open to physical attacks from settlers.” The International Middle East Media Center reported then that “Italian journalist, Francesca Borri, German activist, Lukas Wiehler, YAS coordinator, Issa Amro, and YAS activists, Ahmad Amro, Mohannad Azzeh, Ali Amro, and Zidane Sharabati were held hostage, their phones and computer confiscated and all connections to the outside world severed.” On December 18 the United Nations issued a report that “expressed grave concerns at continued reports that human rights defenders are being subjected to physical attacks, harassment, arrest and detention, and death threats ... The continued harassment of human rights defenders in the OPT, who are exercising their rights to freedoms of expression and association, is simply unacceptable. It should cease immediately.”
The co-founder of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement Omar Barghouti describes the historical arc that gave rise to this youth movement: “The current shaking off of Israel’s chains, almost entirely led by groups of very young men and women, has its roots in decades of popular Palestinian resistance to Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid. Its immediate objective is putting a stop to Israel’s crusade to take over what is left of occupied Jerusalem, especially the Old City and its holy sites. A new generation of Palestinians is not just carrying on the struggle for self-determination and liberation of the land; it is crucially decolonizing minds as well, expressing an inextinguishable aspiration for freedom, justice and dignity.”
From the nature of the indictment, it is fair to see this expenditure of time, energy, and resources as an attempt to intimidate and harass. It is not clear why Israel is so intent on shutting down what the international community regards as legitimate non-violent protest. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent address to the United Nations put this in perspective, however, especially when he described the General Assembly as a “disgrace,” the UN Human Rights Council as a “joke” and UNESCO, the UN’s cultural organization as a “circus.” It is because of this open contempt for international law and human rights conventions that Palestinian human rights workers are reaching out to the international community.
When Issa Amro spoke with me in October, he noted the growing success in getting support from other groups: “There are a lot of groups doing a great job supporting Palestine. You have Christian groups, you have Jewish groups, you have Palestinian groups, you have Black Lives Matter. They visited me in Hebron, and I visited them in Washington, D.C. It’s not about ethnic support. It’s not about religion. It’s not about nationality. It’s about human rights and Palestinian rights.” Amro then expressed his belief that it was precisely because of this sort of success that he was eventually put on trial:
“I started getting international attention, especially in the United States. I started reaching more people, especially the American Jewish community, and organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace. Our group organized an activity with the Jewish Center for Nonviolence. It was a big activity, a big action to start a cinema in Hebron. The authorities nearly went crazy because they saw high-profile people, including American Jews, saying it’s not in our faith to have the Occupation, to see that kind of discrimination in Hebron. They went crazy. They wanted to get rid of me. They tried to arrest me that day. The authorities didn’t find any real excuse to put me in jail, so they started another plan, plan B, which was to reactivate all those charges against me and put me in jail.”
He asked that two points be emphasized. First, the goals of Youth Against Settlements: “We want to make Israel accountable for its human rights violations, for the Occupation, for the discrimination, for apartheid, for injustice. That’s all what we want as Palestine human rights defenders. That is what the international community can do—help us make Israel accountable. We are calling for freedom, justice, and equality for all. We don’t want Israel only to end the occupation. We want Israel to be fully accountable according to international law, according to the human rights law, according to all treaties that restrict any kind of violence, any kind of occupation.” To do this, he stressed the importance of humanizing the Palestinians despite the distortions of the mainstream media:
“We need to inform Americans, especially the media, about what is happening back in Palestine, without any kind of politics and without any kind of make-up. Unfortunately, the media, when it’s coming from Palestine and Israel to the US, it’s filtered. We are stereotyped, as Palestinians. You don’t believe that we have a Palestine human rights defender who is convicted because of human rights work. We want to change that image and start working and showing the reality on the ground. Come see with your own eyes, write about the truth.”
As mentioned above, Amro’s attorney has submitted a motion to have all charges dropped. Israel has until December 23 to reply.