While US President Donald Trump was busy inciting a mob to attack the Capitol Building in Washington DC, Palestinian activist Issa Amro was convicted on three counts of protesting peacefully against illegal Jewish settlements and human rights violations in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He was found guilty of protesting without a permit, two counts of obstructing security forces, and one count of assault going all the way back to 2010, which could result in significant prison time.
“I protested peacefully to preserve my right to self-determination and have my identity back, which the occupation is stealing from all Palestinians,” he explains. “However, because Israel does not believe in democracy, the judge in the military court announced it loud in front of many diplomats that I am no longer allowed to participate in any peaceful protest without getting a permit from those against whom I am protesting.” The irony was not lost on him.
The Palestinians have no right to fight for freedom or basic human rights, he adds, and Trump has helped Israel to keep it that way over the past four years. It is a fact that Trump has not hidden his contempt for the Palestinian people. He recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the US Embassy there, despite it being against international law to do so. Moreover, the unveiling of his controversial Middle East “peace plan” gave Israel the green light to annex swathes of the occupied West Bank, including its illegal settlements. In the outgoing US president’s eyes, the Palestinians are “trapped in a cycle of terrorism, poverty and violence”, and must renounce “terrorism” as a condition for establishing their own state.
Trump’s plans have never offered a road map to peace, says Amro. “We suffered a lot from his support of the racist and violent occupation. He gave Israeli settlers in the West Bank the green light to use violence against us without accountability. It will take years to get rid of his damaging influence on human rights and the state of the law.”
His double standards, believes Amro, encouraged home-grown racists and fascists to come into the open resulting in the attack on the US Capitol Building. “The people of America have suffered from his domestic policies as much as the Palestinians have suffered from Trump’s foreign policy,” he believes.
As far as the Palestinian activist is concerned, the US president has been sending mixed, and confusing, messages. “He asked his supporters to go home, but also praised them and repeated baseless accusations that the presidential election was ‘stolen’ from him.” One thing he didn’t do, was call the rioters in Washington “terrorists”, although others have.
For decades, the Palestinians have been branded as terrorists because of their legitimate resistance against Israel’s military occupation and illegal settlements built on their land. Even those involved in non-violent protests and support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement are labelled as “terrorists”.And yet BDS is entirely peaceful. Founded by Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti, the movement seeks to use economic pressure to protest against Israeli policies in the occupied territories, and supports Palestinian independence. Israel has already imposed strict measures to curtail BDS activities, and has been boosted by support from the Trump administration. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced last month that the international movement against illegal settlement goods will be designated as “anti-Semitic” by the US.
Amro is calling on the international community and supporters of the Palestinian cause to hold Israel accountable for its crimes. “Statements and condemnations are not enough,” he insists. “The international community is acting according to its own interests, unfortunately, and not towards its moral principles. Hence, I try to reach the moral-driven civil society organisations and push them to put pressure on their governments not to cooperate with the occupation.”
He is the co-founder of Youth against Settlements, a group of non-violent Palestinian activists in the flashpoint city of Hebron in the southern West Bank. Along with dozens of other in the city, Amro has been at the forefront of the resistance to the Israeli occupation for decades, facing persecution, abuse and violence from soldiers and illegal settlers alike as a result.
What is clear, he says, is that these policies, which give rise to extremists like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will not last when President-elect Joe Biden takes office in a few days’ time. “I don’t expect major changes in US policy, but what will happen is that we will stop the right wing from going after the UN Relief and Works Agency [UNRWA} and we will block Israel’s annexation plans because the new US government will not accept them.”
As Palestinians, he is conscious that there is a need to be smarter with advocacy. “We’re not doing it well enough. This is very important, so I’m trying to teach the youth about raising awareness and advocacy, and it is working.”
The 40-year-old activist from Tel Rumeida has faced charges since 2016, when Israeli prosecutors laid 18 against him relating to his activism. Amnesty International has described the case against Amro as “politically motivated” and the charges against him as “baseless”. It has expressed concerns that convicting him could pave the way for further suppression of Palestinian activists and human rights defenders.
In Hebron, Issa Amro is a household name. However, this wasn’t always the case. When he began leading non-violent resistance and civil disobedience campaigns against Israel, the local community questioned this “mission impossible” and questioned what he was talking about. “Do you really think it will work?” they asked. “It’s dangerous.”
Now, though, it has become an accepted culture. “Many Palestinians believe in peaceful resistance,” explains Amro. “The best examples are the weekly protests in Hebron for the right of return of Palestinian refugees and against the installation of metal detectors in occupied Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque. Even small victories like establishing a kindergarten in Tel Rumeida and a women’s centre all matter.”
The efficient use of the media is key, he points out. “We use social media. We document human rights violations with the help of families who live near the settlements, as we provide them with cameras. We do legal work and direct action, such as protests or campaigns inside and outside Palestine. We do community work. And we try to reverse the use of public spaces in order to take them back from the occupiers.”
Issa Amro is conscious that Israel’s narrative of every event and the presentation of legal arguments to justify its actions dominate reports by compliant commentators with access to significant media space. “According to this narrative, everything I do is illegal, because I am Palestinian. My dream is for us Palestinians to launch a massive, organised non-violent revolution in Palestine, so we can see the potential impact that such a movement can have on Israeli society. Then it will only be a matter of time before we have better leadership.”