The right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu includes a number of politicians who emphatically reject the notion of an independent Palestine. Israeli settlers continue to expand across the West Bank, no matter the timid censure of the international community. And Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas finds himself tethered to a process that has no real future, while his support dwindles among the Palestinian public.
"We are not in the time to talk about solutions," said Issa Amro, a leading Palestinian activist who spoke to Today's WorldView while on a visit to Washington this week. "We are in the time to protect ourselves from settlements, from settler violence, from attacks on our cities and villages."
Amro, 38, has risen to prominence as a nonviolent dissident. Amro's organization, Youth Against Settlements, stages civil disobedience actions and monitors human rights violations in the West Bank. He comes from a generation of Palestinians who have grown up in the era that followed the 1993 Oslo peace accords and yet see no end to the military occupation that has defined their lives. That's perhaps especially true in the West Bank city of Hebron, Amro's hometown, where civic life is dominated by Israeli settlements.
"It's every day — house demolitions, land confiscation, building more and more settlements," he said. "If you tell a Palestinian, 'two-state' or 'one-state,' he'll say 'What are you talking about? They are burning my house, they are arresting my children.'"
For his pains, Amro has been detained numerous times by the Israeli military while staging nonviolent protests. This summer, he appeared in an Israeli military court on a series of charges mostly dating back more than three years, including supposedly spitting at a settler and "obstructing" soldiers. The trial is set to resume later this month.
"The right-wing government is pushing the Israeli military to take me down for being an activist who is opposing the settlement project in my own city peacefully," said Amro, who refers to the segregation enforced in Hebron as open "apartheid."
"If he is convicted, we will consider Issa Amro a prisoner of conscience," a spokeswoman from Amnesty International told Israeli media earlier this year, saying that the charges against Amro "don't stand up to scrutiny."
Adding to the chorus are a number of U.S. senators, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who penned a letter in August to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raising concerns about Amro's trial and urging the State Department to keep tabs on it. Amro called on Sanders while in Washington. Israeli military courts, though, have a 99 percent conviction rate in cases such as this.
Amro, who was born in Hebron and turned to activism as a college student, is one of the more well-known dissidents in the West Bank. He liaises with left-wing Jewish organizations, both in Israel and overseas, while his work has been highlighted by U.N. rapporteurs and defended by European diplomats.
Amro sees the struggle before him in stark and simple terms. He is not invested in notions of Palestinian statehood or independence, but in winning for the close to 5 million Palestinians living under occupation the same basic freedoms afforded to Israelis.
"We want Israelis to talk about our rights as equal human beings. But we see that they only talk about themselves and they just ignore this," he said. "Nobody cares about me waiting at a checkpoint for three hours for no reason. Nobody cares about a child being detained by Israeli occupation forces."
The repeated refrain from Netanyahu and other Israeli officials is that the main obstacle to peace is Palestinian violence. But that argument falls short with people like Amro, whose tactics include sit-ins and the monitoring of settlers and Israeli security forces with video cameras. "They see us as the main enemy," he told me. "They don't know how to deal with nonviolence."
"It is particularly people like him that Israel is most uncomfortable with, more than the militant carrying the weapon," said Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. "People often ask, 'Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?' You’ll often find many of them either in Israeli prisons or shot or killed or otherwise oppressed from engaging in activism."
Amro is cynical about the peace process, suggesting that Netanyahu and his allies are happy with the prevailing state of affairs and that talks will yield little for Palestinians. "Israel wants the status quo. It wants us to accept the occupation, to give up our rights," he said. "Negotiations haven't brought us anything on the ground. On the contrary, it gave settlers more time to build more settlements."
Amro wants to encourage a campaign of mass civil disobedience across the West Bank. But such protests carry high costs; an estimated 40 percent of the total male Palestinian population has been detained at some time or the other by the Israeli military.
“The majority of the Palestinians are not using violence or nonviolence,” Amro said. “The majority are silent and are afraid to leave their homes.”
Nor do such movements win clear support from the Palestinian Authority led by Abbas, which in some instances has worked hand-in-glove with Israeli authorities to detain activists under loosely defined terror charges. Not long before arriving in the United States, Amro spent a week in Palestinian police custody after writing a Facebook post that called for the release of a detained Palestinian journalist who had written critically of Abbas.
"The international community unflinchingly supports Israel and the PA, even as both continue to demonstrate that they are repressive regimes," lamented Palestinian-Canadian lawyer Diana Buttu.
In his conversation with Today's WorldView, Amro said the Palestinian Authority — an institution that's supposed to be the vehicle through which Palestine becomes a state — was "an authority without authority," subservient, in his view, to an Israeli government that would rather it didn't exist.
"It's not about two states. It's not about peace," Amro said, referring to the aims of Netanyahu and his allies. "They believe that it's all for them."
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