BY ISSA AMRO (Also published in TIKKUN)
June 5, 2017 marks 50 years since the Naksa, or “setback,” when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza strip (2017 is also 69 years since the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” when 700,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their homes and lands to make way for the establishing of the State of Israel). Qiryat Arba, the first Israeli settlement in the West Bank, was established in the outer Hebron area in 1968. Eleven years later the Beit Hadassah area of Hebron’s Old City was taken over by settlers who squatted in buildings in order to take them over. The Israeli government later expanded the Beit Hadassah settlement and built a yeshiva. There are now 560,000 illegal Israeli settlers living the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Around 500 of these settlers live within Hebron’s city center and an additional 7,000 are in Qiryat Arba.
I was born into Occupation in the old city of Hebron in 1980, thirteen years after the Occupation began. When I was a child, my father used to hold my hand tightly as we walked through Shuhada Street because it was so crowded. In 1994 Brooklyn-born Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein opened fire in the Ibrahimi mosque killing 29 Palestinians in worship and injuring some 120 more. In response to the massacre, the Israeli army boarded up and sealed shut Palestinian storefronts and homes on Shuhada Street. While settlers now roam freely on Shuhada Street, carrying machine guns, pistols, and other weapons, Palestinian families that live on the street have to use back doors, alleyways, and rooftops to enter their homes. The once vibrant marketplace where my father used to hold my hand now resembles a ghost town.
While politicians across the world are busy debating political solutions, things are escalating rapidly. Where once Israeli soldiers or police would arrest Palestinian youth attempting to carry out knife attacks they now perform extrajudicial executions, even after the youth has been disarmed and poses no threat. Injured Palestinian youth are left to bleed to death as they are denied any medical treatment. Settlements are being expanded and more areas are being declared closed military zones. In October, a speech by Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennett called for Israelis to give up their lives to annex the West Bank. And as of January 2016 there were 26 permanently-staffed checkpoints in the West Bank, causing severe restriction of movement for Palestinians who face lengthy delays as everyone is checked by the military. Twelve of these permanently-staffed checkpoints are in Hebron, where there are also roads split in the middle—one side for Jews and the other for Muslims. Last winter, a large area of Hebron was placed under closed military zone order. Extended family, friends, home repair professionals, and even medical professionals and ambulances were forbidden from entering.
In August 2016, the Israeli Civil Administration announced plans to expand the settlements in the south Hebron Hills, including in the contested village of Susiya. Also in the same month, the Israeli government approved the first new settlement housing units in the old city of Hebron in more than a decade. The 28 housing units for some 100 settlers will cause around a 10 percent increase in the settler population in the old city of Hebron and will come from Palestinian properties that were seized years ago by the Israeli government. The transfer of properties will be in direct contravention of international law. Netanyahu says he is defending Israel from Arab terrorists. However, this is not what the current conflict is about. Netanyahu and the current Israeli government leaders are not providing defense against Arab terrorists, but rather they are defending settlers and pro-settlement politicians. They are defending apartheid, discrimination, and Occupation. They are killing all of our hope for a good future and the achievement of a just peace and freedom for Palestinians.
The rapid proliferation of settlements is counter to any hope of a two-state solution. Meanwhile, conversations about a one-state/ one-person one-vote are drowned in the reality of extrajudicial killings, settler violence with zero accountability, attacks on Israeli and Palestinian human rights defenders, and a legal system where Palestinians and Israelis are subject to different laws. Rather than engage in these political/philosophical debates about solutions, we must take concrete steps to secure basic human rights for Palestinians, implement international law, and protect the organizations and individuals working nonviolently for change. In September 2016, Israel revised 18 charges against me as an attempt to stymie my human rights work and set a precedent of fear for other Palestinian human rights defenders.
The charges, which date back to 2010 and include such things as organizing a demonstration and incitement, came as a reprisal and punishment for working with Israeli and American Jewish activists on a nonviolent action this past summer to restore an abandoned Palestinian factory and create a cinema to increase the infrastructure and life in Hebron’s embattled central district. As a Palestinian I am being tried under Israeli military law, which has an over 99 percent conviction rate. Meanwhile, illegal settlers in the West Bank are subject to civil law.
The fight in Hebron is not a fight between Muslims and Jews over religion. Palestinians respect the Jewish holy sites in Hebron. We are proud of our grandfathers and grandmothers who protected Jews during the 1927 massacre. Jews are welcome in our city, but not as settlers or occupiers. I invite my Jewish friends to visit my house as welcome guests. It is my pleasure to show them historical and religious sights of the old city as well as the new city and bring them to meet Palestinian families and receive firsthand testimonies about what is happening in Hebron, rather than relying on stereotypes and media images.
While full equality, which necessitates a one-person one-vote system, is important, right now it is of the utmost importance that we focus on the dire situation unfolding before our eyes. As a Palestinian human rights defender, I need my Jewish and other allies in the U.S. and around the world to oppose the billions of dollars the U.S. is giving to Israel to maintain its system of apartheid and Occupation. I need them to demand accountability for acts of settler violence, to revoke the charity tax status of settlement financing organizations, such as the Brooklyn-based Hebron Fund, and to ensure that human rights defenders, such as myself, have protection from political persecution.
Issa Amro is the founder and coordinator for the Hebron-based Youth Against Settlements. He is an internationally recognized Palestinian human rights defender from the West Bank city of Hebron, Palestine. In 2016 Amro was honored at the Institute for Middle East Understanding’s annual gala. In 2013 he was declared a Human Rights Defender by the European Union. In 2010 the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) declared Amro the human rights defender of the year for Palestine. In 2009 he won the One World media award for his involvement in the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem’s “Shooting Back” video documentation project. Amro has been published in The Nation and The Huffington Post. The trial Amro references in the article had not concluded at this time.