Inspired by Gandhi, a Palestinian Resists Israeli Settlements

Looking out from a dusty hilltop over the West Bank's largest city, Hebron, Israeli flags pepper the rooftops below while a grey watchtower and a giant, symbolic Jewish menorah protrude towards the sky on a ridge in the distance.

Hebron, one of the oldest cities in the world, has become a flashpoint for simmering tensions underlying life in the occupied West Bank. It is regarded by Jews as home to the second-holiest site in Judaism, the Tombs of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), and by Muslims as the fourth-holiest city in Islam. Just a year after Israeli forces occupied the West Bank in 1967, ultra-religious Jewish settlers established the settlement of Kiryat Arba, initiating the spread of Jewish outposts across the Arab-majority city.

In order to protect the settlers, Israeli security forces have gradually imposed a policy of physical separation in Hebron. The movement of Palestinians is now restricted by a network of checkpoints, forcing the closure of hundreds of Palestinian businesses and the exile of thousands of Palestinians from their residences in Hebron's Old City.

Under the 1997 Hebron Protocol, the city, a former economic hub of the southern West Bank, is now divided into two areas--H1 for Palestinians, under the control of the Palestinian Authority, and the smaller H2 area under Israeli control, where Palestinians are excluded and formerly thriving shops sit empty on desolate streets.

After being guided through the H2 zone by a series of blue and white markings on rocks and walls, we reach a house in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Tel Rumeida and encounter a small group of armed Israeli soldiers defending the adjacent settlement of Ramat Yishai.

"You cannot go in to see him!" shouts one of the soldiers positioned on a mound overlooking our destination as we arrive. Puzzled and nervous, we wait until another soldier with a 1990s-style bucket hat nods and points to the gate.

We've come to see Issa Amro, a Palestinian activist who is the founder of a non-violence movement, Youth Against Settlements. He has beckoned us, by phone, to meet him at the movement's centre, which backs on to the Jewish outpost.

Issa, inspired by the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, founded Youth Against Settlements in 2007, advocating civil disobedience and non-violent and pro-active measures to document and protest against the Israeli occupation in Hebron and the West Bank. The Jewish settler community in the city, numbering around 600, is protected by 2,000 Israeli soldiers among a Palestinian population of approximately 200,000.

The five soldiers, guns in hand, hover nearby as we enter. I look at the ground and walk quickly down the path. We find Issa on the centre's porch, hidden from the glare of the July sun and the glares of the soldiers next door. He invites us to sit, allowing us to drink water in the middle of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Issa and his colleagues document acts of violence perpetrated by Israeli soldiers and settlers to increase awareness of the tense situation in the city. Last year, a video filmed by Issa's group of an Israeli soldier cocking his gun at a Palestinian teenager went viral.

"We are always recording. We are always filming to protect ourselves," he says, showing me the movement's Facebook page on his laptop. "We see that the camera is the most trustful witness which gives us the ability to defend ourselves."

"We are a pure Palestinian non-violence group. Only non-violence and civil disobedience," he says. "Non-violence is not peaceful. Peaceful is about not reacting at all but we react, just in different ways."

The group organises non-violent protests, campaigns, tours with NGOs such as Israel's Breaking The Silence, workshops and projects to raise awareness of daily life under occupation in Hebron, and to improve the lives of those affected by the restrictions put in place by Israeli forces.

The group's activist base has now grown to more than 50 from just seven in 2007, and its demonstrations mobilise thousands of Palestinians in the city, the largest amassing 25,000 people to rally against the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip last summer. Issa advocates an approach of "community resistance" as opposed to individual action.

"It's not individual, it is the whole community. Nobody can defeat a nation if everyone participates," Issa says with optimism, while noting that many Palestinians do not actively resist the occupation for fear of the consequences. "Maybe it will take longer but you are much stronger."

The group's leading campaign is "Open Shuhada Street," which protests the Israeli closure of hundreds of Palestinian shops in the road Issa refers to as the city's "Oxford Street"--but it is now known as a desolate "sterile zone" within the H2 area, where only foreign visitors and Jewish settlers are permitted.

The road was closed to Palestinians after the 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians by Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein at the Ibrahimi Mosque, also referred to as the Cave of the Patriarchs, during Ramadan. It was reopened and closed again several times in the years following until the onset of the violent Second Intifada (Arabic for "uprising") in 2000, when the street was definitively shut down by Israeli forces.

"Daily life is impossible; it's not a life, you cannot describe it as a life. It's daily harassment. It's daily intimidation. You don't feel safe inside your house. You don't feel safe to leave your house," Issa says with intensity. "There's a lot of settler violence, physical violence, symbolic violence."

"They are changing the identity of our own city. We are losing our streets, our shops, our city, and you cannot defend against it," he says. "They attack our olive trees, they attack our water pipes, they even throw stones at you at your house."

While Issa speaks, I catch the bucket-hat-clad soldier peering down the path at the entrance to the group's centre. The activist gets up and says we can speak to the forces protecting the adjoining settlement. We walk around the centre to find a sign that reads "Arabs are prohibited here" and three settlers standing with the soldier who had earlier shouted at us.

We strike up a conversation with the smirking squaddie, a 20-year-old who says it's his first day in Hebron after completing four months of national service in the IDF. He reveals he is originally from New York and an avid Yankees fan. Issa seems uneasy that we are talking about normal things with the Israeli forces he must confront daily. The soldier cuts the conversation dead and walks away, refusing to answer any more personal questions, so we return to the porch.

When I speak to him by phone the following week, Noam Arnon, spokesman for the Jewish community in Hebron, says he believes the activist's non-violence movement is "very dangerous" as it "denies the right of people to live in a place because they are Jews."

"The Jews have the right to live in 3 percent of the town. In 97 percent of the town, Arabs live alone, freely, so they cannot have any complaints," Arnon insists, despite the numerous restrictions on the Palestinian population in the city. "I have no problem speaking for people who search for peace. I pray for the day [Issa] begins to act for peace and does not cover an anti-Jewish approach by speaking about peace."

Issa, who says settlers actually occupy around 20 percent of the town (a figure supported by the United Nations), argues that his aim is not to force Jews from Palestinian land but to achieve equality and full rights for Palestinians who live under a daily and intrusive occupation.

"The settlers are under the Israeli civilian law and we are under the Israeli military law, which means that we are not equal by law," he says. "By the civilian law, they are innocent until the police prove opposite. Under the military law, I am guilty until I prove the opposite."

In May, Israeli NGO Yesh Din published a report titled "Mock Enforcement" that said 85.3 percent of investigations into settler violence were closed by Israeli police between 2005 and 2014. The group also said only 7.4 percent of investigations resulted in indictments and only 32.7 percent of legal cases resulted in full or partial convictions of suspected attackers. The probability of a Palestinian complaint to Israeli police resulting in a conviction is just 1.9 percent, the group claims.

While many cases of settler violence are ignored, Israeli forces are quicker to detain Palestinians on suspicion of an offence, for example handcuffing and blindfolding a mentally disabled 11-year-old Palestinian boy on suspicion of throwing stones last October. However, many Palestinians do not report cases of settler violence, as they do not trust the Israeli legal system, according to Israeli rights group B'Tselem.

Figures on Palestinian attacks against Jewish communities in the Judea region of the West Bank, provided to Newsweek by the IDF, show that attacks in 2014 included "5 shootings, 2,070 rock hurlings, 60 stabbings, 10 explosive devices and 130 Molotov cocktails," while so far this year attacks have allegedly involved "680 rock hurlings, 40 stabbings, 5 explosive devices and 20 Molotov cocktails."

Despite the restrictions imposed on the Palestinian population of Hebron by Israel's occupation, such as on the import of construction materials to work on projects, Issa and his fellow activists continue to defy the occupation.

Issa claims that Israeli checkpoints prevent 300 families from sending their children to kindergarten, so his group set out to convert an empty house in the city, smuggling materials and children's toys past occupation forces, working through the night. A fully-functioning kindergarten is now available for the city's Palestinian families. The movement's next project is to convert an empty factory in the city, closed by Israeli forces, into a cinema, he says excitedly.

"We hope to end the occupation, to feel free, to feel that we are equal with everybody else in the world. That's all we want. We want our full freedoms and self-determination. We want to live in justice," Issa concludes.

He reveals the numerous death threats he has received from Israeli soldiers, some of whom he says have threatened to shoot him the next time they cross paths. But the activist is unyielding, pledging to continue the non-violent fight for his movement and the Palestinian people.

"I am afraid for my life but this is my life's duty."

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