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A Famous Palestinian Activist Could Be Sent to Israel Prison for His Years of Nonviolent Protest

Issa Amro says that he is being persecuted because the Israeli authorities don't know how to deal with Palestinians who remain nonviolent.

Issa Amro in 2015. Photo by Eli Ungar-Sargon

On Sunday, Issa Amro, a Palestinian human rights activist, will appear in the Israeli military court at Ofer to defend himself against 18 charges that could result in one to three years in prison. At 36, Amro is already internationally renowned as the founder of Youth Against Settlements, an organization devoted to ending Israel's occupation of the Palestinian Territories through nonviolent action. The Israeli authorities have arrested him many times before, a common enough occurrence for any Palestinian protesting the occupation. But this time, Amro says, is different.

"When I heard 18 [charges], I took it seriously," he told VICE over the phone from Hebron. "This time it seems they just wanted revenge, to get rid of me."

The criminal behavior listed in the indictment includes things like resisting arrest, breaking a settler's camera, and interfering with soldiers trying to do their jobs. But many of the charges are what in the US would be called free speech, like "incitement," "insulting a soldier," "attempting to influence public opinion in a place or way that threatens public safety or order," and gathering without permission. In one instance mentioned in the indictment, Amro led a group of protestors wearing masks of Obama's face and shirts that read "I have a dream" to a printing house in Hebron.

"In doing this, the accused took part in a process with a political purpose or that can be interpreted as political, and this without a permit from the military chief," states the indictment. According to Israeli military law, Palestinians wishing to gather in groups of more than ten require permission from the Israeli military. Acts considered to be influencing public opinion can be prohibited as "political incitement," and can carry prison terms.

Israel's prosecution and persecution of Palestinians engaged in anti-occupation activities is nothing new. But Amro isn't just any protester—sometimes called the "Palestinian Gandhi," he's a high-profile activist who is steadfastly committed to nonviolence.

"It's about nonviolence in the community," he told an audience at NYU in May. "Ghandi says, if you want to win with violence, you will win with violence, but the violence will stay in the community after you win," he went on. "Nonviolence strengthens the civil society in the best way. This is why we try to educate, to convince the Palestinians about nonviolence."

Amro lives and works in Hebron—Al Khalil, in Arabic—the largest city in the West Bank and home to roughly 250,000 Palestinians, which I visited when I wrote about Amro for VICE last year. It is also home to a stronghold of about 500 Jewish settlers, who are guarded by twice as many Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers. The city is infamous for the close proximity in which Jews and Palestinians live, and the clashes that result.

Hebron is also striking for the starkness with which the Israeli Occupation is realized. Unlike in Israel proper, where at least on paper Arab citizens have equal rights to their Jewish counterparts, Hebron's Jewish and Palestinian populations are treated differently by the Israeli authorities. Palestinians living in the Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank report to military court for criminal matters, while Jews report to Israeli civilian courts. There are streets Palestinians are forbidden from walking on. They pass through checkpoint after checkpoint to get from one side of the city to the other.

It is these civil rights abuses that Amro has devoted his life to documenting and exposing to the international community, and to resisting at home, through creative, nonviolent means. If he continues to do this work, it may be from a prison cell for the next few years.

"The military courts have a high record of finding Palestinians guilty," Gaby Lasky, Amro's lawyer, told VICE. She says that the probability that Amro will be found guilty of at least some of the 18 charges is high. "We're doing everything possible to show the court that this is a political case and very biased and an infringement of Issa's rights," Lasky said, adding that it was surprising how far back the charges against Amro go: "One thing I can say about the military courts is that they are very efficient in the sense that if someone is arrested and brought to court, the prosecution will immediately take the file and present an indictment, in maximum two weeks."

"The decision to indict Issa this time around appears to be a clear-cut case of political persecution." –Suhad Babaa

Others were less surprised, like Suhad Babaa, executive director of Just Vision, an organization dedicated to increasing media coverage and support for Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders.

"The Israeli government has been actively repressing voices of dissent and nonviolent activists with an increased fervor in the past two years," Babaa wrote in an email. "The decision to indict Issa this time around appears to be a clear-cut case of political persecution."

"So many internationals have been asking where the MLK Jr or Gandhi of Palestine is," added Babaa. "Issa is one among hundreds of men and women who take on that role every day, and have been doing so for years, if not decades. But too often their stories are made invisible, and their actions are criminalized."

One of Amro's chief antagonists is Baruch Marzel, a leader of the settlers who live in Hebron. Marzel called Amro a "troublemaker." "I don't know why he's not in jail a long time ago," he told me on the phone from Hebron. Amro is "too smart" to commit acts of violence himself, Marzel said, but still blamed him for anti-Israeli violence.

The view of Amro as a provocateur is common in the settler community. "He doesn't care about any human rights of any Arab in Hebron," Tzippy Shlissel, another resident of the Jewish community of Hebron, told VICE. "He only wants to fight against the Jews and against Israel. For this he uses a lot of propaganda, mostly lies." She is bothered by the public nature of his work, for example, a video he made of a house she says belongs to Jews, "but he stands in front of the camera and says, 'This belongs to Arabs,' and all the anti-Semites buy it, like we took places that don't belong to us. This is what he's doing—thousands of provocations."

But even Marzel objects to Amro's being tried in a military court. "We want Arabs to be tried in civilian court instead of military court," he insisted. "I would like him being charged in the Israeli justice system." Marzel also says he supports the rights of Palestinians to protest. "I'm for the rights of everyone to protest, if it doesn't interfere in the military force's work."

In response to a list of questions about Amro's case, the IDF spokesperson emailed the following official comment: "Over a period of several years, the defendant has committed a number of offenses including repeatedly taking part in riots, attacks on soldiers, incitement, and interference with security forces. Following an accumulation of evidence against the defendant, he was indicted solely based on the evidence gathered as to his repetitive criminal behavior."

"They want to make Hebron empty from any moderate voices calling for peace or nonviolence." –Issa Amro

However his trial goes, Amro remains worried about the future of nonviolent resistance in the West Bank. He worries that the way he is being treated by Israel will make other Palestinians lose hope that nonviolent resistance can be effective. But his trial is also confirmation of a kind. His work embarrasses the Israeli authorities, Amro says, making them feel they need to justify their actions in Hebron, or even apologize for them.

"They want to make Hebron empty from any moderate voices calling for peace or nonviolence," he said. "They see it as the main threat to them," possibly even a greater threat than the violent stabbings that have plagued Israel recently.

"Israel manages very well regarding how to act against violence," Lasky, Amro's lawyer, said. "They can act violently back and they know how to do it, and how much strength to use. But Israel hasn't found a good way to fight nonviolence, so this nonviolence really presents a big riddle to the Israeli authorities. So the way they have chosen to treat nonviolence is to incarcerate the leaders to make people uncomfortable or afraid of coming to nonviolent activities because they see what happens to those leaders."

"They don't want civil disobedience because it's the best methodology to defeat them," Amro said. "They want to keep the Palestinians violent so they can kill them."

Follow Batya Ungar-Sargon on Twitter.