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The Nonviolent Palestinian Activists Working for Peace in the West Bank

Issa Amro wants to teach young Palestinians to peacefully challenge the Israeli occupation and build communities. Can his work overcome decades of violence and strife?

It was pitch-black in the graveyard. I was struggling to keep up with my guide, a 15-year-old boy named Ahmed who had jumped into my car ten minutes earlier and proceeded to guide me to the secluded spot. He made his way easily between the olive trees along a ridge in the choppy terrain, his thin body navigating the uneven ground. Over the lip of the hill on which the graveyard sat, the lights of Hebron flickered in the valley below.

My silent guide was taking me to meet Issa Amro, his longtime mentor and the founder of Youth Against Settlements, a nonviolent movement in the heart of the West Bank city of Hebron.

I asked Ahmed what it was like to be Palestinian in Hebron. He told me how he was beaten up by Israeli soldiers on the way home from school not once but many times, how they would take his backpack and dump its contents out on the street. "Are these books?" they would ask. "These aren't books."

Still, Ahmed said he doesn't throw rocks during protests like some Palestinian youth. "Why should I give them an excuse to kill me?" he said. "It's not our way. We at Youth Against Settlements don't throw stones. Not for them. For us."

We continued on, until a circle of bright lights encompassing a small house came into view. An old olive tree stood guard outside the entrance, a bright sign declaring "Free Palestine!" slung from its branches.

Ahmed led me to the house, his demeanor growing suddenly shy as we passed through the front door and into a small living room. On a fraying yellow couch, facing a Palestinian flag that covered most of the opposite wall, sat Issa Amro, a man with intense, close-set eyes, a ready smile, and an air of concentrated power. Gathered around him were other members of Youth Against Settlements, some of them men in kafiyyas and jeans, a few of them teenagers like Ahmed.

Amro is one of dozens of leaders across the West Bank and East Jerusalem who are using nonviolent tactics, civil disobedience, and direct action to challenge Israel's occupation. The work of these activists has gone nearly unrecognized, with most of the international media attention focusing on rockets launched from Gaza and the increasing dominance of the right wing in Israeli politics. But for the past eight years, the group has been working to instill the principles of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience in the hearts of Hebron's Palestinian youth, even if no one is watching.

All photos by Eli Ungar-Sargon

Hebron is a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nestled in the gently rolling hills of Judea, the ancient city houses the Cave of the Patriarchs, also called the Mosque of Ibrahim, a site holy to both Muslims and Jews because it is believed to be the final resting place of the biblical forefathers. Hebron—Al Khalil, in Arabic—is the largest city in the West Bank, home to roughly 200,000 Palestinians. It is also home to a stronghold of about 500 Israeli settlers, who are guarded by, depending on whom you ask, some 700 to 2,000 IDF soldiers.

The ancient city has a bloody history. In 1929, 67 Jews were killed and mutilated in riots by Arab residents, after which the town's Jewish community left, only to return after the Six Day War of 1967, when Hebron came under Israeli control. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a doctor originally from Brooklyn, opened fire on Muslims praying at the Cave of the Patriarchs. He killed 29 Palestinians before they overpowered him and beat him to death. Hebron was most recently in the news as the place where three members of a breakaway Hamas cell plotted a terrorist attack that resulted in the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers and sparked events that led to the 2014 war in Gaza.

"We distinguish between the Israelis and the settlers, and Israelis who want to give us our rights, and those who don't see us as equal human beings." –Issa Amro

Hebron has been an especially active battleground in the decades-long conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. A list of "terrorist attacks and violent incidents" that took place in Hebron, compiled by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs IN 1996, is a grim read: "Arab terrorists ambushed and killed six Jews and wounded 20"; "11 Arabs, including four schoolchildren, were injured when a booby-trapped grenade exploded in the Hebron market"; "an Arab resident of Hebron was wounded by a bomb"; "Yeshiva student Erez Shmuel was stabbed to death approximately 500 meters from... the Tomb, while on his way to Friday evening prayers."

Tensions between Palestinians and settlers continue to run high today, especially in neighborhoods like Tel Rumeida, an area of Hebron believed to be the location of the ancient city. A Jewish settlement has sprouted up there, though there are also a small number of remaining Palestinian families and Issa Amro's the Youth Against Settlements center.

Issa Amro in Hebron

One of the settlers living in Tel Rumeida is Baruch Marzel, a far-right activist and politician who has been known in the past to get into literal fistfights with Palestinians. Marzel believes that most Palestinians support Hamas. In fact, he says that he respects Arabs more than his enemies on the left do. "That's why I fight them," he explained to me on the phone. "The people who think that one day Arabs will change their religion, give up part of their religion and give up part of the land, don't understand what Arabs are. Arabs are religious. They are ready to die for their religion." Marzel, who wears a chest-length bushy beard and a large knitted yarmulke, spoke in a slow, hoarse voice with the English of a man raised by Americans in Israel.

Just before the elections, the police of Judea and Samaria filed charges against Marzel for attacking a Palestinian in 2013—Marzel allegedly entered the man's home, refused to leave, and kicked the man when he pushed Marzel out. That man was Issa Amro.

When I asked Marzel if he had assaulted Amro, he said, "I was attacked there!" Then the conversation took a turn. "You know, from your first questions, I understood which side you're on, with your Arab questions." Marzel suggested I ask Amro what happened.

I did, and Amro sent me video footage of the event. In it, the intimacy of the conflict between Palestinians and settlers crackles. Everyone knows everyone's name; every word is an insult. Marzel, walking with three young men who look to be in their teens, saunters up to the gate to Amro's property and walks right in. When Amro and his friends yell at Marzel to get off their private property, Marzel seems to throw a punch at the group of men, and Amro grabs him and pushes him out of the gate. Marzel kicks Amro on his way out.

The IDF arrested Amro, and didn't release him until he showed them the video.

Related: Palestine vs. Israel: Against the Wall

Marzel is widely regarded as an extremist, and he does not represent most or even many Israelis. But his belief that the majority of Palestinians support Hamas and harbor violent thoughts toward Jews is a commonly held one. Indeed, there are such Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, and in Hebron. But there is also a growing number of voices to counteract those others, not least of which is Amro's.

I met Amro in November, shortly after an attack on a synagogue in Har Nof, a pious neighborhood in western Jerusalem, that left three rabbis dead. "I feel sorry, really," Amro said, touching his chest with an open palm. "I feel that civilians should be completely away from the conflict."

While he spoke, Ahmed brought out tiny glasses of coffee spiced with cardamom on a long tray and passed them around. Later he brought out tea made from sage.

"We are proud to say we are talking about nonviolence wherever we go, as principle, not as strategy or tactic," Amro explained. "It's our principle that we should stay nonviolent, for us."

Ahmed had used the same words—"for us."

"With nonviolence we build our own civil society first," Amro continued. "We want to strengthen our civil society to be able to defend and to be more organized. In that way, you make your own house stronger."

As to whether he and fellow Palestinians want to kill Jews, Amro's take differed from Marzel's. First of all, the activist explained, there is a big difference between Israelis and Jews; a central tenet of his religion is a respect for Judaism. "I'm not a Muslim if I don't believe in Judaism and all the prophets," he said. "We can't target Jews because they are Jews—we're not allowed at all by religion. So Daesh (the Islamic State) and other extremists, they aren't following Islam."

There were murmurs of assent from all the other men in the room. "This is how we see it," Amro went on. "And we distinguish between the Israelis and the settlers, and Israelis who want to give us our rights, and those who want to take us out of this culture and don't see us as equal human beings." In this vein, Amro doesn't support the blanket boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israeli companies.

It is impossible to say how representative Amro is of the Palestinian people more generally, though many Palestinians I know spoke of him warmly and with admiration. He is invited to address media outlets across the spectrum and is welcome as a speaker at events across Palestine. Of course, Amro says, there are fanatics as well, who only believe in violence, but they are by no means the majority.

People often say to Amro, "You're the only Palestinian who feels this way." It infuriates him.

"The last kidnapping didn't get much support from the people in Hebron," Amro said. In fact, it garnered less support than the last nonviolent protest he organized, which Amro said 2,000 people attended from all over the West Bank. "Whenever they see me, people always encourage me to do more," he told me.

The view that most Palestinians support violence is preposterous, Amro said. He estimates that 70 to 80 percent of Palestinians are "not active at all." Even getting them to show up for nonviolent actions is difficult. "They are pissed off. They don't want to act."

"It's very bad to be a victim and blamed in the same time. It's really very bad," Amro said, shaking his head.

Marzel's belief that most Palestinians support Hamas and wish harm to all Jews is not foreign to Amro. People often say to him, "You're the only Palestinian who feels this way." It infuriates him; describing this sentiment was the only time I saw him get angry. "Are you talking on my behalf?" he asked the imaginary audience. "Don't talk about me, talk about yourself! Baruch Marzel was almost elected. No one in Israel wants him to be their neighbor, and he almost became a lawmaker!"

To Amro's mind, "99 percent of Palestinians want to end the occupation and achieve equality." But achieving equality before the law in the West Bank has not been an easy endeavor. While Arabs living within Israel's borders ostensibly have the same rights as Israelis, Palestinians living in the West Bank are under a completely different set of rules.

"If I could try to sum Hebron up, it's sort of like taking everything you thought was good in the world and everything you thought was bad in the world, and putting it in a blender, and for all the time you're in Hebron, it's nonstop," said Avner Gvaryahu, director of public outreach for Breaking the Silence, an organization of IDF veterans who seek to show the Israeli public "the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis."

Hebron is divided into two zones: H1, governed by the Palestinian Authority and off-limits to Israeli Jews; and H2, controlled by Israel, which includes the old city of Hebron and the Cave of the Patriarchs.

The problem is, 30,000 to 40,000 Palestinians live in H2, and their lives have been made increasingly difficult. What are known informally as "sterile zones" keep Palestinians out of certain areas of the city, the restrictions against them increasing in the territory near the settlements. In some areas, Palestinians are not allowed to drive. In others, only Jews are allowed to walk. The main business thoroughfare of Shuhada Street was closed, the doors to private businesses sealed shut by the IDF, after the Goldstein rampage. Some Palestinians can only enter their homes by climbing through windows and roofs. Many have abandoned H2 for easier lives in H1, and those who stay face daily challenges.

"Because of the way the system is built, Palestinians will always pay the price." –Avner Gvaryahu

Palestinians living close to Jewish settlements are constantly attacked by settlers, Gvaryahu said. Of course, it's not a one-way street; there are violent Palestinians as well. But violent Palestinians and violent Jews are not treated equally before the law. Israelis living in the parts of Hebron controlled by Israel are by and large judged according to the standards of modern Israeli law, whereas Palestinians living in the same areas are judged by and large under military law.

"Because of the way the system is built, Palestinians will always pay the price, and there will never be enough law enforcement over settlers," Gvaryahu explained.

In addition to settler violence and inequality before the law, Palestinians in H2 must deal with living under military occupation. From his own experience and the stories of many other soldiers, Gvaryahu says that soldiers in Hebron were explicitly ordered "to make their presence felt." How do you make your presence felt? "You randomly enter homes," Gvaryahu explained. "This is part of a routine operation by soldiers. You enter the house, you wake everyone up, you check IDs, you search the house very, very aggressively. It's three or four in the morning and that's it." Another soldier told Gvaryahu that his orders were "to disturb the daily life of the Palestinian population." Gvaryahu himself was told "to instill in Palestinians the sense that they are being chased."

Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, a spokesperson for the IDF, denied these claims. "I can't really address the individual perspective of a soldier, but that's definitely not a policy on behalf of the IDF," he told me on the phone from Israel. "Procedures are required in order to create the security that is needed in order to defend the civilians, Israelis or Palestinians. Off the top of my head, that's definitely not our policy."

I asked Lerner about the sterile zones where pressure afflicts Palestinians' daily lives. "I'm not aware of any 'sterile zones' as you put it," he said. "Of course, there are concerns in certain areas where there can be threats to Israelis in that area, so there has to be a security check to have access to them." Some had been targeted several times throughout the years, Lerner said, by snipers and suicide bombers. "We need to maintain security for those Israelis living there."

Israeli soldiers in Hebron. Photo via Flickr user Tali C

When asked about whether the laws applied differently to Palestinians and to Israelis, Lerner replied, "That question is extremely simplistic. The laws are adapted in order to maintain civilian life. Palestinian violence outnumbers in volume and extent any Israeli violence that has taken place."

Lerner was careful to emphasize that "any violence is bad, it's wrong, and it needs to be dealt with." He insisted that the military would intervene to stop violence committed by settlers, and that its intervention has led to a reduction in settler violence over the years. "So the military laws apply to them as well."

While Gvaryahu recognizes that military presence in Hebron is, to some extent, necessary for maintaining its settler population, he questions whether it's ultimately worth it. "I represent a voice in Israel, I'm an Israeli, I see myself as a patriot, I see myself as someone who cares about my country, my people, my community. I'm an Israeli who does not want to control millions of people by force. Call me crazy," he said.

He believes that security issues should be judged with the future in mind. "I know this with every bone in my body: The children that were petrified of me when I barged into houses in the middle of the night are probably not big Zionists," he said. "The little children that peed in their pants because I arrested their father or used their living room as a sniping point or just used the house as a stakeout, I'm sure that they're not Israel supporters. If we're looking for a way forward, we have to think how to strengthen the moderate voices."

Enter Issa Amro.

Amro was a university student studying engineering when he first became aware of the power of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance. It was 2003, and the West Bank was deeply mired in the bloodshed of the Second Intifada. The Israeli army closed the University of Hebron and Palestine Polytechnic University, reportedly welding shut the doors and preventing students and faculty from entering.

Amro was part of a group of students who formed a committee in order to figure out how to restore their right to an education. They began to study other examples of nonviolence throughout history. They read about Ghandi, the South African anti-Apartheid movement, and Martin Luther King Junior. They read the works of Gene Sharp, and they protested. And eventually, Israel reopened the university.

The struggle left a lasting impression. "From that time, all my life is in this way," Amro told me in the center in Tel Rumeida. Though he has a full-time job working in development at the vocational training centers in Palestine, Amro has devoted every moment of his spare time—he estimates about 70 hours a week—to nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience, with the belief that it is the most effective means of resistance.

"We embarrass [the soldiers] with personal interaction. We embarrass them by inviting them to eat." –Issa Amro

It's not easy cleaving to his values. Amro, who is known by name and face to many of Hebron's soldiers, is frequently stopped. He remembers a time when the frequent detentions would infuriate him, and can still call up those feelings. "Sometimes I feel that I want to be exploded from inside," he said. But his mission is about transformative power, a lesson he learned from other organizations and which he now passes on. "We give training to our activists how to transform our power from negative to positive," he explained. Whereas once he would get angry at soldiers for detaining him, now he has a new tactic: He jokes with them, engaging them in conversation, about food, family, the weather, sex. "We embarrass them with personal interaction. We embarrass them by inviting them to eat," he explained. When settlers insult him, Amro says "Thank you very much. It's not good to say these things on Shabbat."

Amro opened the center for Youth Against Settlements in 2007. The structure had been a military base from 2001 until 2006. The soldiers had trashed it—there were no windows, no electricity. Then some settlers occupied the building, and Amro went to court to sue for the right to rent the space from its owner, a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem, and eventually won. But settlers would come and throw stones at them. Amro gathered over a hundred volunteers to renovate the place and keep a vigil so as not to lose it to the settlers. Amro says equipment permits can take years to procure from the Israeli authorities, so the volunteers had to circumvent the checkpoints and smuggle in the building equipment. They would sneak them through the graveyard, the same one through which Ahmed had brought me. It's the only route to the center that doesn't require passing through numerous checkpoints.

Youth Against Settlements partners with Breaking the Silence to make videos, which are often used by Palestinian and Israeli media alike to report on the West Bank. On Fridays, international and Israeli delegations come to listen to Amro. He takes them on tours to increase awareness of the situation in Hebron, to show them Palestinians "as we are." The center has a hotline, and provides support and lawyers for people who get arrested. Youth Against Settlements also offers Hebrew classes, leadership training, and film screenings.

But Amro's achievements have extended beyond the center itself. For years, the difficulties of living in Tel Rumeida meant Palestinian residents couldn't get electricians or plumbers to come service the area. "They are afraid to come," Amro explained. "It's close to the settlements. Soldiers might attack or detain. To bring the tools with you through the checkpoint, you'll be questioned, maybe detained, and the people are afraid. Why should I go there for 50 shekels or 100 shekels?"

Homes were falling into disrepair. Families couldn't get basic services. So Amro organized a group of volunteers to go from house to house, family to family. Amro would assess the home, and others would paint, clean up the soldiers' "leftovers,"—their shit—and fix what needed fixing. They would play with the children, and invariably, the families would invite them to eat, and relationships would develop. People began to ask after each other. The first family serviced joined the group, and went to the second family to help them. In the beleaguered neighborhood of 250 families, Amro had fostered a community.

Next, he established a kindergarten. With hundreds of volunteers working in shifts, he restored another house. All the materials—including toys and batteries—were smuggled in through the graveyard, "as if we were smuggling guns," Amro recalled. One person would watch the soldiers, another the settlers, and the group would sneak under the cloak of darkness into the house. They were sometimes caught, their materials confiscated. They started again. Eventually, Amro had his kindergarten.

"It's the only public space created in 20 years," he said proudly. "We control our kids' education." He teaches the children—there are 30 of them—about nonviolence. They have yoga on Mondays.

He has bigger plans ahead: He wants to convert an abandoned army factory into a cinema, and someday he'd like to be be minister of education for all of Palestine, where he would teach civil disobedience from the first to the tenth grade. Civil disobedience and the power of nonviolent resistance isn't something that comes naturally, Amro says. You need training, and a culture of nonviolence that suffuses into schools and other places where young people congregate. Until his dream is realized, Amro goes from school to school in the West Bank, teaching kids not to throw stones, not to give soldiers and excuse to shoot.

Recently, the signs on Shuhada Street were changed from Arabic to Hebrew. "I feel very bad when I see this," Amro confessed. "It's not about the name of the street. It's about the identity of the people. It's evidence that the conflict is not about security. It's about the land."

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