Who’s Afraid of Nonviolence?
By MICHAEL CHABON and AYELET WALDMAN JAN. 27, 2017 NY Times
Issa Amro, a native of the city of Hebron and a prominent Palestinian advocate of nonviolent resistance, has been waiting now for nearly two months to find out when he can expect to face trial in an Israeli military courtroom. He has been accused of a series of offenses ranging from demonstrating without a permit to “insulting a soldier.”
The two most serious charges are for assaulting a pair of soldiers and a settlement security coordinator. In both instances, one in 2010 and the other in 2013, the military claims that Mr. Amro pushed his antagonists.
Mr. Amro denies the allegations and points out that in both instances it was he who suffered physical injury. The charge of insulting a soldier includes an incident in which a border policeman took Mr. Amro’s ID. Mr. Amro says he told the officer: “I want my ID back, I am not wanted, and if you had called to check you would know this. But you have not called, I know, I am not stupid.” The officer, however, insists that Mr. Amro called him stupid and said that “he could not arrest him.”
A dispute over whom Mr. Amro called “stupid,” however, is not the only absurdity here. He is also charged with assaulting an Israeli settler during an altercation over a camera, which reportedly happened at a protest. Mr. Amro is accused of spitting at the settler, pushing him and throwing his camera to the ground. But Mr. Amro says that though he was at the demonstration, he had already been arrested and was in military custody when the camera incident took place.
Cruel absurdities are a commonplace of life in the occupied territories, but nowhere are they quite as intense as in Hebron. In the center of this city of some 200,000 Palestinians, a group of 800 Israeli settlers occupies heavily fortified positions, guarded by 650 Israeli soldiers. To manage this inherently combustible situation, the Israeli military has turned swaths of the central city into “sterile zones” in which Palestinians are no longer allowed to drive.
Mr. Amro, 36, is among the most successful community organizers to have come of age in the Hebron of minority rule and sterile zones. For 13 years, he has been engaged in a creative, nonviolent campaign against the Israeli occupation. Through the organization he founded, Youth Against Settlements, he provides a space — a community center — and an outlet for young people to express their resistance to the occupation in nonviolent ways.
Every week, up to a hundred kids gather at the center, where Mr. Amro screens inspirational films and instructs them in principles of political nonviolence. He involves them in projects that maintain the public pathways and repair stairway railings and water pipes. They run a summer camp and built and operate a kindergarten. For this work, the United Nations bestowed on Mr. Amro its “Human Rights Defender of the Year in Palestine” award in 2010.
Since the outbreak in October 2015 of what has come to be known as the “Knives Intifada,” Mr. Amro’s work has become more difficult. Last October, he was sitting in the garden of the community center when he got an urgent phone call from a neighbor: Crouched in a doorway near the Beit Hadassah checkpoint, about 220 yards from the community center, there was a girl with a knife.
The neighbor understood that the girl’s plan was to try to stab an Israeli soldier. The neighbor knew that the likely result of such an attack would be the death of the girl, not of the soldier. And the neighbor knew that when you hoped to avoid violence, Issa Amro was the person to call.
Mr. Amro sprinted to the checkpoint and found the girl there, huddled and trembling. He knelt next to her and began to talk. He told her that if she carried out the attack, she was likely to die. She said, “I don’t care, there’s no hope for me.” Mr. Amro told the girl that her death would not help Palestine, that her community needed her. He talked about the myriad ways the occupation could be opposed without violence and without martyrdom.
“She didn’t believe me,” he says. “But I started giving example after example.” He quoted Quranic teachings about the sanctity of life and the sin of suicide, and in time, he said, “I could see her hold on to a little bit of hope.” Eventually, she handed him the knife. He turned her over to the Palestinian police.
Since then he has received other urgent requests for help in averting violence. Among them was one from a young woman who messaged him on Facebook, telling him that she wanted to take up a knife and become a martyr to the Palestinian cause. He discouraged her, pleading the cause of nonviolence. He reached out to her friends and sent them to her house, where they successfully interceded.
This is the man who now faces a long sentence in an Israeli military prison over offenses that include a schoolyard taunt he says he never uttered and an assault he says he could not possibly have carried out. The prosecution has yet to respond to a motion by Mr. Amro’s lawyer to drop 14 of the 18 charges, on the basis of “abuse of justice,” and its pursuit of Mr. Amro has been widely condemned.
In the eyes of the world, Mr. Amro’s commitment to nonviolence has made him a particularly appealing and visible spokesman for his people. In the past year, he received visits from members of Congress and even as his original trial date approached, he traveled to Belgium, where he spoke to members of the the European Parliament and met with its president.
Self-assured, articulate and principled, Mr. Amro and his rising public profile serve as an embarrassment to the Israeli military regime that controls Palestine. As Amos Gilad, the director of the Political-Military Affairs Bureau at Israel’s defense ministry, told American officials in a comment that came to light as a result of WikiLeaks, “We don’t do Gandhi very well.”
There are Palestinians who murder, who strap on suicide vests, use vehicles as weapons, assault Israeli soldiers and civilians with knives. Issa Amro is not one of them. On the contrary, his commitment to nonviolent resistance as the only legitimate path to lasting change is the best hope of peace for Palestinians and Israelis alike.
If Israel harasses and prosecutes community organizers like Mr. Amro, the youth of Palestine will have no models of resistance to turn to in their frustration and despair but people like Mohammad Tarayreh, who on June 30, 2016, in the settlement of Kiryat Arba, on the outskirts of Hebron, broke into the bedroom of a 13-year-old Israeli girl, Hallel Yaffa Ariel, and stabbed her to death. In binding the upraised fist of resistance, they will leave only the hand that is holding the knife.