Palestinian Gandhi on Trial: Part 3 (Guilty Until Proven Innocent)

Join us as we go deeper into the case of Issa Amro before an Israeli military court, and deeper into the two very different sets of laws at work in the West Bank. We will discuss Israeli civil law, to which Israeli settlers are party as citizens of Israel; and we will discuss Israeli military law, to which Palestinians are subjected, as non-citizens living under military occupation. According to this military law, it is illegal to organize more than ten people in a political meeting of any kind without first obtaining permission from the occupying military (an impossible task). It is illegal to publish political materials, or to seek to influence one’s people, without first gaining the approval of the military. In fact, this system of military law is so restrictive that it could, in the blink of an eye, become illegal to stand on the street where you live.

Palestinians have called the presence of two legal systems for two peoples who occupy the same geographic space (and in the case of Hebron, occupy the same city) an “apartheid system.” In this episode, we explore why, and discuss the incredible injustice and cruelty that results when one group of people is given heightened access to law, and to law enforcement; and another group experiences law only as a system of oppression.

Welcome to Part Three of Talking Human Rights’ special series Palestinian Gandhi on Trial with our guest, Issa Amro.

In this episode, we go deeper into Issa’s case before an Israeli military court, and deeper into the legal system that relentlessly targets him while offering him little in the way of recourse. This targeting of Issa has been categorized by some human rights groups as “legal harassment,” as it is perpetrated by legal authorities, and by those who have the law on their side. Perhaps after hearing Issa’s story, you may start to see legal harassment in other contexts as well, as it is a common strategy used to keep activists like Issa stressed, busy, and away from their work.

Please see below for transcripts and resources on all we discuss in this packed  episode. Thank you for being with us!

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Resources/Transcripts

Heather: In this episode, we will discuss the specifics of Issa’s case before the Israeli military court only minimally and will instead spend most of our time talking about the legal system that surrounds the case and feeds this case. For instance, instead of asking when was the exact incident where Issa participated in a demonstration without first obtaining a permit from the Israeli military (as he is charged with doing in his Israeli military court case), we are going to look at the system of highly restrictive military law that has decided that demonstrating without a permit is a crime worthy of putting someone on trial, as unbelievable as that may sound.

Speaking of unbelievable, I just want to say that this episode, and this series brings up something that I really struggle with and that is, whether people will believe what Issa is saying and what I am saying about life under occupation. There are a lot of people who flat out deny that the West Bank is under occupation.   And there are also those who admit that it is, but claim that the Palestinians “live quite well” under it, that they live better than they would otherwise, and in fact many prefer it.

So that is why we’re taking so much time in this program to discuss the occupation context, to dispel any ideas like this, and to talk about, really, what is it like to live under military occupation without access to a state, without access to a legal system that represents you in any way.

But when I said this to Issa – when I told him that I was struggling with how to construct this series to ensure, as much as possible, that Americans will believe and understand that this level of injustice is possible, and is ongoing, here is what he said:

Issa: I can say that Americans will understand what is happening in Palestine by comparing the 1950s here in the US, how it was very hard for black people to be equal with the whites and how black people didn’t have any rights here. The same in Palestine. I am living under military law. It means I am guilty before I am proven innocent. It means I am not allowed to have any kind of general assembly, so peaceful protesting is not allowed. Any meeting of more than ten is illegal. Any meeting with more than three needs a special permit from the army, which is impossible to get. Any kind of mobilization is not allowed.  Any kind of saying no to the occupation can be considered incitement and they can put you in jail from one year to ten years. So it is really severe military law.

Heather: So, when Issa first made this argument about pre-civil rights-era America it was in our first interview we did over a year ago [March of 2019], and I think my response was something like, “I’m sorry, Issa, but most Americans haven’t studied the ongoing struggle for African-American rights and freedom in this country as much as you have. So, they are really going to have to be educated on both of these things.

But I think…writing now in July of 2020, there has definitely been a change in awareness of this ongoing struggle, even in these past few months. It’s not as if it is new information that the American police have been profiling, harassing, brutalizing, and killing black people for over a century, for instance. But there does seem to be a heightened level of awareness, and there is definitely, of course, a heightened level of documentation.

All of which makes me wonder if seeing all that, knowing all that, if perhaps it might make it less of a leap for people to believe that living under military occupation over the long term, for over fifty years, could actually be as brutal as Palestinians will tell you that it is.  And, to add an additional layer to this incredible brutality, that living in close proximity to a population of people in your city who are citizens of this foreign state that is occupying you, and who do have access to law, and who are protected rather than oppressed by the military that is occupying you, that people in that position do begin to behave badly, very badly.

In this episode, we’re going to break all of this down with a lot of examples illustrating these themes. We’ll have lots of resources and photos for you to help with your understanding (and can always provide more — so please get in touch if you need them!). Simply click on the tabs below for edited transcripts and links to laws, stories, and other resources.

Heather: In the cover image for this episode, you see Issa surrounded, up against a wall, with his hands behind his back. You see men in uniforms and some with cameras. The location is Shuhada Street, which, as we covered in the last episode, was once the main shopping area in Hebron, that has now been almost entirely shut down by the occupying military. Behind the crowd, you can glimpse the settlement of Beit Hadassah, which is located on Shuhada Street, and is a central reason for the closure of the street.  The businesses and homes along Shuhada Street have been cleared out and the people have been cleared out, in order to clear a path for a very small population of Israeli settlers, two of whom you also see in this photo. 

Heather: I asked Issa to tell me what is happening in this photo, starting with… Are you in handcuffs?

Issa: No, I am putting my hands behind my back so I will not be accused of attacking the Israeli settlers.  I was leading a group of activists who were escorting Palestinian kids to go to school in Hebron. The kids they walk down [there] and we wanted to be there with our bodies to protect the kids from the settler violence.

Heather: And we can actually see this settler violence much better, I think, if we look at the video that was taken of this incident. So what can we see in this video, Issa?

[Note: You can see the video here.]

Issa: You can see her slapping me. You can see the Israeli police doing nothing to arrest her or to stop her. I was attacked physically by this settler not only one time, many, many times. This year I was attacked maybe eight times by settlers without any accountability for the settlers who attacked me.

Heather: It’s impressive how calm you are as she smacks you in the face, and the other settler, the male settler, is kind of ramming into you and your fellow activists. But who are these other men in this photo? Who is this man in uniform here? 

Issa: He is an Israeli police man.

Heather: And what about this other man in uniform? Who is he?

Issa: He is [an Israeli] police man, too.

Heather: And is there anyone here from the Palestinian Authority here, anyone here representing you?

Issa: No, this area is under Israeli military control and the Palestinian Authority is not allowed to be here at all.

Heather: And the Palestinian activists in this photo, are they allowed to be in this section of Shuhada Street?

Issa: You know, the street is completely restricted. The street is closed by around ten checkpoints. I am allowed to walk only in twenty percent of the street. The rest I am not allowed to walk. We are not allowed to drive here as Palestinians at all in this area and Palestinians are restricted from coming into here. Only the Palestinians who are registered at the checkpoint are allowed to be in this area. So, all of the Palestinian activists in the blue vests are people who are living in this closed area in Hebron.

Heather: And who are the men with cameras here?

Issa: They are Palestinian and international journalists there to cover our first day of walking the kids to school.

Heather: And how many times were you able to do this accompaniment?

Issa: We did it for one month, but unfortunately the occupation denied us for maybe half of the month not to escort the kids to go to school. They kept declaring the area as a closed military zone for many, many days.

Heather: You mentioned that Shuhada Street was declared a “closed military zone” after you began accompanying children to school on that street.  Can you talk a little bit about this issue of places suddenly being declared closed military zones? What this means?

Issa: That was the first military law issued after the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967. That law can give the army the authority to declare any area as a closed military zone. It gives them the authority to arrest me from four days to eight days without seeing a judge. They can put me in administrative detention without telling me any excuse or telling my lawyer anything about me.  I can be put in jail for six months and six months [for years on end]. We have around 500 Palestinians in administrative detention. They don’t know what they did, and they don’t know when they will be released.

Heather: For listeners, here are some resources on the laws Issa is talking about. We have the text of the laws to which Issa is referring, the Order Regarding Security Provisions.

We also have a report from the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem on the issue of administrative detention, by which, as Issa says, Palestinians can be held without charge, without explanation, for indefinite periods, starting with a six-month period that can be continually extended.

Heather: And this area that is so restricted like this, it’s restricted because there are settlers living in this area. So, maybe you can tell us more about the settlers, like the woman who is slapping you in the video. What is her status?

Issa: She is under the Israeli civil law and I am under the military law. Her legal status is much higher than mine. So that is what is happening is that we are in the same area and we have two sets of law for different people and I consider that apartheid. So she had the courage to slap me and attack me many times and she’s sure that she will not be accountable for doing that.

Heather: But there aren’t that many settlers in Hebron, are there?

Issa: We have only a few hundred settlers in the city living among 200,000 Palestinians. The few hundred settlers they have much more rights than me and they are under the Israeli civil law and I am under the Israeli military law, so we have two sets of law for two different people in the same area and, you know, you can say that they feel the power. They feel confident to attack me, because the law doesn’t make them accountable . There is no law enforcement on them. They have a kind of impunity to attack us. Personally, I was attacked many times by the settlers physically, slapped, hit, kicked by the settlers, even, you know, I was attacked many times in front of police.

Heather: Right, like in this video. The settler is attacking you and the police are right there. And you know, you accompanying kids to school to protect them, this is a huge issue. Kids having to walk into an area where their parents are afraid to go, or may not be allowed to go. And as you know very well, Issa, the Israeli army even sends soldiers into the South Hebron Hills to accompany children walking between the villages of Tuwani and Tuba, to protect them from settlers. Every day, twice a day, getting these kids back and forth to school so they don’t get killed by a settler. It’s nuts.

Issa: You know, we have settlers, they attack the kids, they beat the kids, they prevent the kids from going to school without any accountability. Israeli settlers, you can say that they are acting wild. In South Mount Hebron, between Tuwani and Tuba, they attack the kids on the way to school. They beat them up, they throw stones at them, without any accountability. The main issue is that we have violent, fanatic Israeli settlers in Hebron and all over the West Bank. They have impunity and they can do whatever they like without any accountability. So it’s normal to have violent people in any community, but it’s abnormal that they are not accountable for attacking, for shooting, for destroying Palestinian property.

Heather: Right. We talked in the last episode about illegal settlement activity in Hebron, and in this tiny restricted area where you are here, you have Beit Hadassah, which was settled illegally, and now is legal under Israeli law, and protected by soldiers; and you have another settlement that was established on a hill [in Tel Rumeida] in the 1980s that was also illegal, right?

Issa: The settlers occupied a land in Tel Rumeida in 1983 and started there a settlement, an outpost, and it expanded as usually happens. Then in 2002 they built another building there in Tel Rumeida, despite that it’s illegal according to Israeli law to build in an archaeological site. I am living almost 100 meters far from that caravan and you can say that I am on the border of the Israeli settlement where Israeli settlers are occupying a Palestinian house and living in it against the Israeli law, because the Israeli supreme court just decided that the house belongs to the Palestinians, and the land belongs to the Palestinians, and it should be given back to the Palestinian family, but unfortunately the case is in court since 15 years without any kind of real implementation for Israeli law even.

Heather: And if one of these settlers attacks you, or harms you, you have to launch an appeal with Israel? And to add another layer to it, the settlers themselves are allowed to serve in the army and can serve in Hebron, as I understand.

 Issa: Many times I saw soldiers serving outside of their homes, and they are acting not even according to Israeli law. They are more violent, more aggressive, because they live there, and because they know us, and we know each other.

Heather: Let’s talk about guns. Let’s talk about the fact that the settlers are allowed to carry guns. Why do they all have access to guns?

Issa: The majority of the settlers are armed despite the military presence. They have a lot of soldiers, hundreds of soldiers in Hebron and thousands of soldiers all over the West Bank, but the settlers, they have guns, too, and they act against the law.

Heather: But have they ever said why they allow them to carry guns when they already have soldiers everywhere?

Issa: To have hierarchy and to have the power and to show us that they are more powerful than us and that even we cannot say no to them and that we see them as more powerful than anyone else. It’s about power and by having a gun it means they have our life and they can end it whenever they want. So, as Palestinians we should give up our rights for the settlers  and leave our own cities and think about building a future somewhere else, not in H-2 in Hebron and not in Palestine in general, that you are not safe from the army and you are not safe from the settlers.

Heather: For listeners, I’m going to link you to a recent television series made for Israeli public television on settlers with guns. It is called Harushot and it is subtitled.

Heather: Let’s talk about some more examples of how this all plays out. I would like for you to talk about the soldier Elor Azaria, who I know you have written about.

Issa: Elor Azaria was a soldier in the Israeli army. He saw a Palestinian laying down injured by other soldiers and instead of giving him first aid and treatment according to international law, he cocked the gun and shot him in the head and he slaughtered him. That is considered a war crime called in international law extrajudicial execution. 

I know Elor because he arrested me on the first of March 2016 in Hebron. I spent eight house with him. He was not that fanatic. He was a normal soldier implementing orders. So I think what he did to that Palestinian to execute him was an order from his commander…and I wrote about it and I said clearly that Elor Azaria is part of the system. It’s not only him that is the criminal, but the system itself, the occupation system. So mainly it’s about the occupation system, which has Israeli soldiers, military law, and the military court where I go.

That soldier was indicted by the Israeli authorities. He got 18 months in jail only for killing a civilian. He ended his sentence after nine months in jail. I am facing two years in jail for my non-violent resistance. [Meanwhile] Ahed Tamimi got eight months in jail for slapping a soldier.

So that is the military law and the Israeli civil law and the biased accountability and the double standards. An Israeli soldier killed a civilian, slaughtered him against Israeli law and international law, spent only nine months in jail. 

And Ahed Manasra was a Palestinian kid tried to stab Israelis which is wrong and we consider it wrong. He was 12 years and a half only. They sentenced him to nine years and a half. So imagine that a child did something wrong, got nine years and a half, and an Israeli adult soldier slaughtered a civilian and spent only nine months in jail. Because that kid who is spending nine years and a half in jail did something wrong. We all agree, but he could be accountable in a different way sent to a behavior officer to a behavior expert because I don’t think a child with 12 years and a half knows what he is doing, but in Israeli they don’t take that into consideration.

Heather: And how can you organizewithin such a system?

Issa: I am not allowed to mobilize any kinds of protests. I am not allowed to organize. I am not allowed to participate. As I said in the beginning, any kind of general assembly is illegal under the military system. Under the military system, you have no rights, you have no opportunity to resist the occupation, even peacefully.

Heather: Do you mean it is literally illegal? It is literally illegal to organize a protest, even if that protest is non-violent?

Issa: It is illegal to invite Israelis and internationals and Americans to come to participate in an olive harvest campaign in Tel Rumeida. One of the questions I had in the Israeli police station once was if I was an organizer for an olive harvest campaign day calling my people, calling internationals, and calling Israelis to join me in an olive harvest campaign day [to protect Palestinian farmers as they work]. And one of my main charges in the military court now is organizing a protest in 2013 with Obama’s mask and Martin Luther King mask and marching in Shuhada Street, chanting songs from the civil rights movement here. We were Israelis, Palestinians, and internationals and I was arrested. I spent a few days in jail. And the Israeli friends were released on the spot. They were not arrested. They were detained, but not arrested, and now I am paying a price in the military court for organizing that protest. They consider me organizing an illegal protest and participating in an illegal protest and, you know, refusing arrest and violating the public peace. And, you know, being in a closed military zone.

Heather: Okay, again, I’ll have a lot on the site about this. For those who want to go deeper into the laws. Particularly this part about incitement, which, when I hear it, means incitement to violence. It’s a very serious crime in America. But in the case of Israeli law, it means to influence public opinion in any way that may harm public peace or public order, which can mean simply speaking out about the occupation.

And Issa, I actually have another photo that I want to talk about and I apologize if this is traumatic to look at, because you are in an Israeli army jeep and you are blindfolded. Can you tell me what is happening? Why are you blindfolded?

Issa: I was campaigning with an American group called If Now Now, trying to ask the new American congress members not to go with AIPAC to Palestine and Israel and to come with us to show them the real image of the occupation. So I posted a video onto social media asking them not to join AIPAC. The Israeli settlers harassed me when I was filming the video in Shuhada Stret and the Israeli soldiers and setlers saw the influence of the video I shared on Twitter with If Not Now and the Israeli soldiers wanted revenge for doing something like that, so I was arrested, ill-treated, handcuffed, blindfolded for a few hours, and then they released me. It happens a lot to me and it depends on the soldier’s ideology what to do with me, because the army gives them space to do whatever they like and there is no accountability for the soldiers for violating Israeli law or violating my basic human rights. I was attacked many times, I was beaten many times by the Israeli soldiers. I receive a lot of threats, death threats sometimes, from the Israeli soldiers.

Heather: Doesn’t this scare you?

Issa: I am always scared. I think they may shoot me anytime. They give me that even impression that you will be killed. You will be shot anytime here in the area. So they tell me leave, leave the country. We will reach you in your house. We will come to your house in the night and we will shoot you. We will arrest you from your house. We will destroy your house. We will awake you in the night. It happens a lot. They came to my house, they arrested me during the night. It’s a military occupation where they have free hands to do whatever they want.

Heather: So it’s worse for you if you are an activist.

Add this: If you try to resist the occupation, your life will be much more miserable than it is normally. So that is the occupation. The occupation is making it costly for us to say no to the occupation. The occupation is trying to make it impossible for us to resist or to do any kind of uprising against it.

Heather: And something I’ve been thinking about is how do you explain all of this to little children?

Issa: I try to empower the children to know their rights and to know what is allowed and is not allowed by the Israeli military law. Because if they know the law, they get much less harassment from the Israeli soldiers, because the Israeli soldiers, they violate Israeli law and when they see you know the law, they sometimes let you go without any real harassment. I ask them to be calm and to tell us as activists what happens to them, to inform the human rights organizations, also to inform anybody passing by that they are detained so that we know and we send people to defend them and then to if they arrest them or detain them I tell them what to do in the police station, what to say in the station, not to speak without a lawyer, not to accept to sign a paper without reading it with their families, not to answer any questions they don’t know the answers, not to say yes when the answer is no, when to ask to go to the restroom and when to insist to go to the restroom. When to shout, scream if they touch them or if they hit them or if they threaten them, when to even file complaints against the Israeli police and the Israeli army and to follow up and to be strong in front of the soldiers and not to give up and not to show them your fear, because if they see you are afraid of them, they do more, and they harm you.

Heather: It’s just crazy to think that they grow up with this surrounding them. All of this military, all of this violence and oppression.

Issa: It’s not only military, by the way. To live in Hebron, you feel that you are in a military zone first, then you see settlers who are controlling the military themselves. You feel the injustice, the inequality, the white supremacy, that on the one hand the settlers get whatever they want, and they can do whatever they want, and they can carry guns, they can attack you, they can attack your hose, they can prevent you from going to your work or to your school. They can prevent the ambulance to reach you in your house. They have water ten times more than you. You are starving for basic needs and I can say that you can see people living next to you, so to be able to get that life, they have violated your basic human rights. You can see that their lives are more important than your life. And their presence and existence is more important than yours. In spite that it’s your city, it’s your father’s, grandfather’s city. They come from the US to come in Hebron to tell me that God gave them it. What, what god? I tell them, What God? What god is giving you something that is mine? Why God gave it to you, not to me? If we believe that God is fair, and God is giving us justice and giving us equality, we should not believe that you deserve something more than me from God. We as humans should believe that we are all equal. 

We don’t see that. We see the inequality, every day. We see that we suffer because we don’t exist with the occupation and because we refuse to be slaves. You know, to get a little more rights, you should accept to be a slave.  You should accept to exist with the occupation. If I want to get a permit to go to Jerusalem, I should accept the occupation. I should coexist with the occupation. I should accept that the settlers are occupying my houses and they are taking my resources and they are giving us nothing and I should be thankful to that. If you say no to that, if you don’t accept that in any way, you are blacklisted, you are threatened, smeared, that is the daily life. And you didn’t choose to live there, by the way. They came to you. You didn’t choose to go to them. They came to you.

In this Episode...

Heather Roberson Gaston

Talking Human Rights host and creator Heather Roberson Gaston is a writer, adviser, and educator in the field of human rights. She holds an undergraduate degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of California at Berkeley; a Master’s in Human Rights from Columbia University; and a Certificate in the Advanced Study of Central and Eastern Europe from the Harriman Institute, also at Columbia University.

Heather co-authored Macedonia: What Does it Take to Stop a War? a graphic novel based on an early solo research trip to the Balkans as an undergraduate. She is now working on a narrative work exploring the many lives and deaths of the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement, for which she spent the better part of a year living and working in Israel and the West Bank.

Issa Amro

Issa Amro is a lead non-violence activist who lives and works in the city of Hebron, Palestine. Issa has championed non-violent struggle since the Second Intifada when he found his university shuttered by the occupying Israeli military. This closure prompted Issa to organize his fellow students, as well as like-minded Israelis, until the university was reopened and the students were able to return to school. 

Issa has been named a top human rights defender by more organizations than we can count. He has organized his local community for the past fifteen years, and has spoken all over the world about the importance of non-violent struggle and about non-violent tactics. You can find him on Twitter where his handle is @Issaamro.

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