Israel Criminalizes Nonviolent Palestinian Resistance—Then Calls Us Terrorists | Opinion

Issa Amro is a remarkable person and an outstanding human rights defender. A Palestinian engineer, Issa lives in Hebron, a city where Israel's military occupation of the West Bank is at its ugliest: About 800 heavily guarded settlers live in the midst of 167,000 Palestinians. This situation has resulted in segregated roads, harsh curfews, and severe restrictions on Palestinian movement. The Israeli settlers are protected by Israeli soldiers and Israeli civilian law, while many of their Palestinian neighbors like Issa live under military occupation and military law. It's a two-tier legal system that tends to result in impunity for settlers, so it's not surprising that physical violence and property damage against Palestinians is on the rise.

Rather than turn his frustration into violent resistance, Issa has instead chosen a different path. He committed his life to nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. In 2007, he cofounded a youth organization to spread his message, Youth Against Settlements, where he has spent over a decade preaching nonviolence to Palestinian youth.

And he didn't reserve his ire for Israel exclusively, either. When I met Issa at a conference in Europe (our paths didn't cross beforehand; it's only on rare occasions that Israel allows Gazans to cross to the West Bank, mostly for humanitarian reasons), he was scathing about the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. At the conference, Issa consistently confronted senior PA officials and called them out for their corruption and their repression of fellow Palestinians. In our brief time together, Issa expressed to me his of affinity and admiration for Jewish culture and values. And always, wherever he went, he preached the importance of nonviolence.

In history books, we read about people like Issa being honored; their fervent rejection of violence in a culture that struggles with it is widely acknowledged and admired. And in an alternate universe, one can imagine how much power a voice like Issa's could have in the Palestinian context. But in the world we live in, Issa Amro is a cautionary tale.

For despite his commitment to nonviolence, Issa was convicted in January on six charges by an Israeli military court, whittled down from an indictment of 18 charges. And he continues another long and drawn out court case in the Palestinian Authority's court. Arrested and indicted by both Israel's military forces and the PA's, Issa represents the brutal absurdity of Palestinian life—and what seems like the futility of nonviolent resistance.

Instead of hope, what Palestinians see when they look at Issa is an occupation drunk on control, surveillance and the denial of dignity to Palestinians. They see a rotting yet fragile occupation that sees nonviolent activism as an existential threat. As one IDF official told American government officials, according to a Wikileaks cable, "We don't do Gandhi very well."

It was an understatement. In June 2016, Issa was indicted on eighteen counts by the Israeli military, on charges—some of them over six years old—that ranged from insulting a soldier to incitement to resisting arrest to participating in an assembly without a permit. In other words, he was indicted for nonviolent resistance. And this week, he had a sentencing hearing, where he received a suspended sentence.

Issa Amro
The Palestinian nonviolent activist Issa Amro entering the Ofer court for his sentencing

Had he petitioned, would Issa have been given a "permit" from the Israeli military to resist and protest nonviolently against that very same army subjugating and oppressing Palestinians? Was Issa supposed to speak fondly to the occupation enforcers? Shouldn't it be enough to acknowledge the significance of Issa's rejection of violence, despite himself being on the receiving end of it?

What Issa's sham trial essentially shows Palestinians is that to Israel's occupation, violent or non-violent protagonists are equally guilty. It's a fatal blow to any movement seeking to mobilize Palestinians along the principles of nonviolent resistance.

I know this from experience. In almost every debate I've had with Palestinian leaders who advocate armed resistance, they are always quick to defend their tactics by pointing out how the proponents of negotiations are treated: "What did Abbas get out of compromising, negotiations, diplomacy and security collaboration? Not only did he get nothing, but he's attacked and demonized at every turn."

They're not wrong: In Netanyahu's Israel, Palestinian diplomacy is labeled "diplomatic terrorism;" non-violent protests are called "PR terrorism;" boycotts of Israel are called "economic terrorism;" Palestinian detainees going on hunger strikes is "terrorism in prison;" a Palestinian presence in Area C is called "construction terrorism," and so on.

How are we supposed to convince Palestinians to resist nonviolently when Israel itself doesn't distinguish between nonviolence and terrorism?

Remember the Gazan activist Rami Aman, imprisoned by Hamas for engaging in dialogue with Israelis? Throughout his arrest, a few prominent pro-Israeli megaphones championed his cause, but ever since Rami's release, they have gone completely silent. Instead of being rewarded for his peace activism—activism for which he paid dearly—Rami is languishing in the Gaza Strip.

Issa's suspended sentence represents the power of the international outcry against equating violent and nonviolent resistance. Israel should consider this outrage carefully. A true partner for peace would seek to enable and ennoble nonviolent resistance, rather than to punish it and cast it as bloodshed.

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of development studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.