Some encounters, however brief, remain unforgettable. My meeting with the Palestinian non-violent activist Issa Amro in June 2016 was one of those. It was the end of a long day in Hebron, where I had gone with several colleagues to study first-hand the impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian higher education. After our interviews with faculty and students at Hebron University, a small group of students had led us through the infamous “Area H2” of the city, where a few hundred right-wing settlers have forced their way among its Palestinian inhabitants and live under the constant protection of the Israeli soldiers who are permanently stationed there to protect them.
Despite the irrepressible wit and high spirits of our guides, it was a dismal tour of the petty ugliness of life under Israel’s racial regime. We walked along the once vibrant Shuhadeh Street, with its shuttered storefronts and netting stretched above it, sagging with the weight of the trash thrown by settlers from their dwellings above. We visited the homes of two Palestinian families whose houses abut the settlements and whose rooftops are hemmed in by grilles and barbed wire against the stones thrown by settlers and the likelihood that their homes will be invaded and stolen—as happened only this summer to one Palestinian family who had the misfortune to live in a house too close to the interface with settler fanatics. We witnessed the trash accumulating in what was once a flourishing alley of goldsmiths. We passed through just a few of the many checkpoints that divide the city between areas and even parts of streets that are forbidden to Palestinians and those where, for now, they can move freely. The bored looks of the soldiers manning these gateways of humiliation betrayed the insolence of arbitrary power over others’ lives.
It was early evening before we passed through the last of these checkpoints into one of the few zones where Palestinians may walk, but not drive, in order to access their homes. Bearded settlers spun past us in their SUVs as we headed uphill into the neighborhood of Tel Rumaida. We were on our way to visit the house that Youth Against Settlement, the non-violent resistance organization that Issa Amro founded, had renovated in 2007. On our way, we turned off the street onto a narrow footpath that led up along the hillside through a grove of old and gnarled olive trees that overlooked the old city. It was almost twilight. The shadows were lengthening and the light was turning golden. The sounds of the city preparing to end the day-long Ramadan fast rose to us from below as we reached the house and its little patio.
We sat for a while on the patio’s low wall as Issa spoke to us about the work of Youth Against Settlements, about conditions for Palestinians in the practically besieged city of Hebron, about the commitment to non-violence that inspired him and the organization he leads. He seemed weary, unsurprisingly, but his commitment and his resilience were unflagging. Just to maintain this house on the edge of a settlement, restored after thorough vandalization by the Israeli military that had occupied it for some years, was a small victory. Non-violent activism consists of such small acts by which to assert one’s refusal to be erased, from the construction of a kindergarten for children in Tel Rumaida to cleaning and maintaining the pavement of Shuhadeh Street or videoing potentially lethal confrontations between Palestinians and the settlers who with monotonous regularity harass and assault them.
In a place like Hebron such simple acts, which affirm the most basic of rights and the determination merely to stay, to refuse displacement and erasure, demand a peculiar courage and persistence. To perform them is to be a constant thorn in the occupation’s side. And Issa’s persistence, we were not surprised to learn, has cost him. Even as we spoke, though he did not dwell on this, having been arrested many times for his actions, he had just been charged in the Israeli military courts on 18 counts that Amnesty International has termed “baseless and politically motivated.” His trial began in July this year and is now scheduled to resume on October 22. That he has in the interim also been arrested by the Palestinian Authority for speaking out in support of freedom of expression is not only sad evidence of their status as the subcontractor of the Occupation, but proof of the consistency and integrity of Issa’s principles.
Hebron, where a tiny minority of settlers lords it over the Palestinian majority, is the future of Israel, moving inexorably towards an unmasked manifestation of what, de facto, it already is: an apartheid state. So much is back-handedly recognized when thoughtless commentators ask where the Palestinian Nelson Mandela is to be found. In fact, his like is not hard to seek. We found non-violent activists everywhere we went, on every university campus, among faculty and students, among ordinary people who, to our astonishment, held no hatred towards Jewish Israelis. Rage, on the other hand, seems to be the perpetual condition of the settler, finding outlet in the continual petty acts of violence and harassment that Palestinians must bear, from the burning of their olive groves to the hurling of trash on their stalls.
It remains to be seen whether a thoroughly militarized apartheid state can in fact be defeated by non-violent means. But under the implacable surveillance and violent repression of Israeli occupation, Palestinians may have no other viable option. This is the paradox of Palestinian resistance: constantly, in the face of the unrelenting violence of the Israeli state, they are urged to practice non-violence and to abjure their right under international law to armed resistance within the parameters of the laws of war. As it happens, Palestinians have been practicing non-violence for almost 100 years, though in an information landscape saturated with Israeli propaganda, one would be challenged to know it. This too is the paradox: despite the apparent hopelessness of non-violent resistance in the face of overwhelming odds and shameless repression, Palestinians continue to practice it, imaginatively, daringly and steadfastly. As Issa has remarked, with admirable faith in the efficacy of non-violent resistance, “where there is a wall, there are holes.”
And Israel has no strategy to deal with non-violence and the innumerable little holes that it pierces in the armature of oppression. Every so often a consistently non-violent organizer like Issa Amro appears on the scene and is arrested on ludicrous charges. Israeli military courts, in which 99% of accused Palestinians are convicted, do not even pretend to consistency or plausibility in their accusations. They make lying, as Franz Kafka once said, a universal principle. And if bold-faced lies will not do the trick, any Palestinian can be “administratively detained” without trial on an indefinitely extendable order of the military regime of occupation. As Issa has said, “It is a kangaroo court system where there is no justice at all. The charges against me are an effort to shut down my human rights work and stop me from speaking up for my people.”
The glaring absurdity and over-reach of such a system of injustice puts paid to its deterrent power. When 40% of Palestinian men have been detained or jailed, from childhood on, jailing the leaders of non-violent moments to serve as a warning to others is an exercise in futility. As Issa has said, the prisons themselves become both schools and examples of non-violent resistance, as the recent mass hunger strikes in Israeli jails demonstrated.
What is astonishing is not the occasional violence perpetrated by unorganized and frustrated Palestinian youths, but the patience and persistence of a population suffering under fifty years of occupation and seventy years of racial domination. As anyone who has visited Palestine knows, their laughter constantly trumps their anger.
Rightly so. Were its conduct not so criminally petty, vicious and vindictive, Israel’s occupation would indeed be ridiculous in its absurd claims, its preposterous lies and self-justifications, and its pretentions to be taken seriously by the global community. The only democracy in the Middle East, with fifty laws that discriminate against its Palestinian minority? A democracy that proclaims itself to be for one ethno-religious group only? A modern state that is not the state of its citizens, but that of those granted “Jewish nationality”? A land without people that has to be ethnically cleansed, not just once but on an ongoing basis? It is not only in its military courts that Israel has to perpetrate threadbare absurdities and lies to cover up the reality of its regressive, discriminatory regime.
With the inexorable logic that faces any colonial regime that has proven by its nature incapable of either assimilating or exterminating its native population, Israel has become steadily more repressive. So too it becomes steadily more repugnant to the democratic civil societies whose approval it courts while the tissue of lies and half-truths with which it seeks to soothe public opinion grows steadily more frayed. In this respect, Israel’s and its U.S. supporters’ vicious campaigns of suppression and vilification of their opponents are the best friends that advocates of BDS can have: in its petty harassment and blatantly groundless detention of activists like Issa Amro as in its defamatory attacks on non-violent activists around the world, Israel reveals its true face. It is a discriminatory racial state whose survival depends increasingly on a toxic mix of lies, discrimination, ethnic cleansing and sheer violence. Its desperate descent into extremism and settler rage belongs with the supremacist logic that founded the Zionist state: a settler colonial enterprise, grounded in the assumption of racial superiority and unsustainable without a perpetual demographic war against its indigenous population, necessarily resorts to ever more brutal and unconcealed outrages in order to sustain its supremacy. From the destruction of Bedouin villages in the Naqab to the steady eviction of Palestinians from East Jerusalem, from the expansion of its settlements on the West Bank to the strangulation of Gaza’s civilian population, Israel continues to prove that a violent program of ethnic cleansing is essential to its existence.
Palestinian steadfastness, and in particular the non-violent persistence that daily affirms their determination to stay on their land, is the quiet negation of Israel’s racial regime. Their struggle will take time and tenacity but, few as the resources are that Palestinians command, tenacity and time are what they most possess. As I sat in the Hebron twilight listening to Issa Amro’s calm and confident voice after a long and dismaying day witnessing the sheer ugliness of occupation and settlement, I knew that he would not be going away. He and Youth Against Settlement will persist against all the odds, however long the struggle for justice may take. And Israel will exercise all its legal and military might to crush their resistance, as it has the power to do. But its exercise of power and violence will also be its undoing. That evening, it was also clear who the world would side with in the end, between those whose power depends on armed force and legal abuses and those who, unarmed and disempowered, steadfastly affirm their right to be human. Those to whom justice matters more than power will side with Issa Amro and with the Palestinian struggle for justice.
Note: Readers who wish to support Issa Amro can find information about how to do so at Youth against Settlement’s website.