Released from prison a week ago, Issa Amro has jumped right back into work. At a small house atop a hill in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron that acts as the headquarters for Youth Against Settlements (YAS), an organization founded and headed by Amro, he sat gathered in a circle with activists, NGO workers, a lawyer and friends sipping coffee under the shade of trees in the front courtyard of the home.
The topic, as usual, was the Israeli occupation–however Amro was not released from Israeli custody last week, but rather the Palestinian Authority’s (PA), and he was not arrested for his activism in Hebron, but rather a Facebook post defending a man who he disagrees with politically.
Amro was arrested on Sept. 4, a day after he took to social media criticizing the PA for arresting Ayman al-Qawasmeh, a Palestinian journalist and head of al-Hurriyeh Radio (Freedom Radio) in Hebron, and released a week later.
“To be honest I don’t have a good relationship with Ayman,” Amro said, frankly. “I don’t agree with him at all, actually when Radio Hurriyeh would call I never agreed to do an interview with them, but for me it’s about principles– journalists should be respected–the government shouldn’t arrest journalists. They shouldn’t arrest any Palestinian who has only stated his opinion, it’s anyone’s freedom of speech to say that Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] does not represent me, it’s our freedom, and we have that right. When they arrested Ayman [al-Qawasmeh] they relayed the message that they will arrest other journalists, and that is what they’re doing–that’s what they’ve been doing.”
Initially, the al-Hurriyeh Radio was closed by Israeli forces under charges of incitement. Frustrated with the PA’s failure to protect the Palestinian populace from such actions by Israeli forces, al-Qawasmeh took to Facebook with a scathing post calling for the resignation of President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and Hebron Governor Kamel Hmeid. He was arrested by PA forces three days later.
“When I saw that he had been detained and I wrote the post against the arrest, the PA thought that I would start mobilizing people against Ayman’s arrest. They know that I have the ability to move the media and they were scared of that–but they did the work in the end, they moved the media themselves by arresting me. I warned them when they arrested me that it was a bad idea. I said ‘don’t arrest me, question me and take me to court, fine, but don’t arrest me, because it will harm the PA.’”
Amro said he was concerned that his arrest would take the focus of his work off of Israel, turning the spotlight on the PA, an easier target, but one that he sees as secondary to the occupation.
“I tried to explain that it was never my intention to move all the solidarity with me that is against Israel against the PA, because I knew the solidarity linked to me against Israel would be nothing compared to the solidarity I could against the PA, but that is never what I wanted. I explained to them that solidarity against them would be ten times stronger because so many are afraid of Israel,” he said, explaining that many American and European institutions, organization and diplomats don’t want to publicly criticize Israel because of their own internal politics, but it’s easy for them to target the PA.
“I was also concerned the Palestinian opposition would use me as a pathway against Palestinians–that’s why I went low profile about the issue when I was released–my main enemy is the occupation and my main advocacy is against Israel not the PA, even though I disagree a lot with the PA policy, I will not attack the PA when Israel is here occupying my land and pressuring the PA to do what they are doing. I want to target the main cause, not the side-effect.”
Amro was interrogated daily during his week in detention, with the PA implying that the activist was a foreign spy, a tactic used by totalitarian governments worldwide.
“I was interrogated a lot about whether or not I report to the Europeans or the United Nations or other international organizations. They wanted to know if I evaluate the PA’s work, or if I evaluate the PA security force’s work. There was a lot of questionings about whether I was spying for international agencies or international secret services working against the PA by giving them information about them. They tried to frame it in a way to allow me to say that maybe I am a victim of these sort of groups, implying that perhaps they came and asked me questions and I didn’t realize what was going on,” he said.
Electronic Crimes Law
Amro was detained under the PA’s new Electronic Crimes Law, which law allows for heavy fines and detentions of anyone critical of the PA online–including journalists and whistleblowers.
In the end, Amro is convinced the PA had two motives for his arrest. First, he believes the government has long been after him because he has continuously refused to bring his internationally-respected movement, YAS, into the fold with Abbas’s leading Fatah party, and second, he believes that by arresting someone as notable within politics as he is, the PA intended to send the message that “no one is safe” from prosecution under the PA’s new censorship law.
“They think we are we are against the PA, but we aren’t. We’re against corruption and we’re against the cyber law–just like all Palestinians–we’re against arresting and intimidating journalists,” he said. “We support freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of expression, and that’s what we express. At YAS, we don’t give real political positions because we are for unity, we’re not with or against Fatah, we’re with Palestine and against the occupation, that is our only goal.”
Abbas passed the “Electronic Crimes Law” in July via a President Decree. The law has taken heat from NGOs and humanitarian organizations across the world, including Amnesty International, which documented that the law is broad enough to be used against regular citizens posting on social media, who could come under fire for simply retweeting news or the posts of others.
Under the new law, anyone charged with breaking the legislation by posting something which could be deemed a disturbance to “public order,” “national unity” or “social peace” could be sentenced to imprisonment and up to 15 years hard labor, according to Amnesty International.
Amro said the law is a perfect example of the PA grasping for options amid an increasingly unpopular administration.
“During my questioning, they told me to look how many attacks the PA was getting from the people, and asked how else they were supposed to stop them if not through a law like this,” he said. “I told them you shouldn’t stop them, let people have their opinion, and they should try to behave better, and then whatever people say it is up to them, give people space to share their ideas and learn from them.”
In July at least ten journalists were summoned by the PA for interrogation, while in August at least six journalists were detained. In addition, the PA has closed down or blocked access to at least 29 websites, most of which are the websites of news publications affiliated with Fatah rivals.
Al-Qawasmeh was released on Sept. 6, after spending three days in PA jail. His radio station will remain closed for at least six months. While Amro seldom agrees with al-Qawasmeh’s point of view, he said Palestinians must band together to defend the right of free speech for all.
“They’re destroying us with this censorship law. We are using human rights and freedom of expression as a tool to attack the occupation, to destroy the false image Israel has created–we are using our voices to show that Israel is an occupying country, and by making these kind[s] of arrests against activists, journalists and other groups they are taking away that tool from us, because the people will have both governments coming after them,” he said. “How can the people support the PA if they are arresting the people defending them? They are attacking one of the only tools we still have to use against Israel–which is our voice.”
While he was released on bail, the activist still has charges against him from the PA, including disturbing “public order,” “causing strife” and “insulting the higher authorities.”
A trial has not yet been set by the PA. In addition, Amor faces 18 charges from Israel for his activism, including “demonstrating without [a] license,” “entering a closed military zone,” “incitement,” and “obstructing an officer,” among others.
Amro said he has no intentions of letting his arrest hinder his work or affect normal behavior.
“None of it will stop me, because this my duty, and I have my principles–I am a human rights defender–I cannot be a human rights defender and at the same time be afraid of either Israel or the PA,” Amro said. “I am sure that there will be a price, there always is, to make change you should pay a price, and if you are not willing to pay it you then you can’t be a leader for change.”