When Issa Amro was invited to an intimate meeting with Antony Blinken in Ramallah in May, he decided to aim straight for the heart. “As a Jew, is this your dream?” Amro rhetorically asked him. “Did you dream of seeing an apartheid state?”
A native of Hebron, Amro warned the American secretary of state of the “Hebronization” of East Jerusalem and the entire West Bank. By “Hebronization” he means the extension of a dual legal system for Israelis and Palestinians, the closing of main roads to Palestinian pedestrians and shop owners, and social segregation.
“Israel is too strong to make peace,” Amro told Blinken. “That’s the problem: It doesn’t need peace. Without making occupation costly for the occupiers, there will never be peace.”
Amro, 41, has emerged in recent years as a prominent Palestinian political activist who gets in trouble as often with the Palestinian Authority (PA) as he does with the Israel Defense Forces. As founder of the nonprofit Youth Against Settlements, Amro has been repeatedly arrested by both the IDF and Palestinian security forces for his efforts to reopen Shuhada Street in Hebron to Palestinians. Once a main commercial artery leading from the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the street is adjacent to the small Israeli settlement in Hebron and has mostly been closed to Palestinians since the massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein against Muslim worshipers in the tomb in 1994.
“I knew that participating in a public meeting with Blinken would have a political cost for me, because there are Palestinians who don’t like the U.S., and they’re right. They think America is part of the problem. But I believe my voice should also reach people who aren’t with us. On the contrary, I prefer to speak to those who aren’t with us.”
Amro’s meeting with Blinken was the culmination of years of activism targeting American public opinion. In 2013, during President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel, Amro and a group of activists donned masks with the likenesses of Obama and Martin Luther King Jr. and marched through Shuhada Street carrying Palestinian flags. They were arrested by the IDF in the presence of journalists from The New York Times and The Guardian.
“The headlines read ‘Obama arrested in Hebron,’” Amro recalled. “It brought attention to the segregation and separation in Hebron and caused the settlers to demand that I be administratively detained for incitement.”
Yet Palestinian social justice activists like Amro increasingly find themselves between a rock and a hard place. According to Amro, the repression of Palestinian journalists and activists by their own government began in earnest in 2017 with President Mahmoud Abbas’ introduction of a cybercrime law broadly banning the criticism of the PA online. Things deteriorated again recently, following the death of activist Nizar Banat at the hands of Palestinian security forces near Hebron. Banat, an outspoken critic of PA corruption, was allegedly beaten to death following his arrest.
Amro, who was friendly with Banat, considers himself less radical in his opposition to the PA than other activists who call for the abolition of the Palestinian governing authority in the West Bank, which is widely seen as ineffective and corrupt. Disillusioned by Abbas’ canceling of general elections scheduled for July, Amro said he favors political and institutional reform rather than a total revolution.
“I don’t oppose the PA as a system, I oppose corruption. I don’t believe the entire system shouldn’t exist under occupation, but I do believe it must represent Palestinians democratically.”
Amro grew up in Hebron’s Old City, between the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Jewish settlement of Avraham Avinu. Following the Goldstein massacre, his family moved to H-1, the section of the city placed under Palestinian administrative control by the Hebron Protocol signed by Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat in January 1997.
“We still own that home in Bab al-Khan, but it’s now in a closed military zone, so we can’t renovate it or live in it. There are around 1,000 Palestinian homes with the same story.”
Amro never planned to become an activist. As an electrical engineering student at Hebron’s Polytechnic University, he shunned political activity and worked as a day laborer to pay his tuition. But in 2003—in the midst of the Second Intifada—Israel decided to shutter his university, spurring him into action.
“When they closed the university, I went crazy. It was my degree! I’d been studying for five years! So I was forced to lead the students demanding to open the university. I decided to wage a revolution, and we established a group that stormed the campus. We broke into the campus despite the army, and stayed there for six months protesting. All the students came in with us, but the administration and professors were scared. So we decided to teach each other; fifth-year students were teaching first-year students. What could the army do? Arrest the students? It allowed it to stay open, and I finished my degree.”
In 2003 Amro founded an organization he called the International Solidarity Movement in Hebron. Two years later, he joined the Sons of Abraham movement which included Israeli, Palestinian, and international activists. But his breakthrough in activism came in 2006 with the idea of equipping local residents with cameras to document human rights violations in the city, an initiative that would later win him the One World Media award. Israeli watchdog B’Tselem eventually adopted the project and employed Amro and his Israeli co-founder Michael Zupraner.
“It was very difficult to distribute the cameras,” Amro recalled. “The army didn’t allow it, and the families would tell me, ‘It’s useless. We’ll get into trouble for no gain.’ But when the videos started emerging, public opinion started to change and the families were pleased, they were no longer being beaten alone. We also used the footage for legal action. Soldiers and settlers used to attack Palestinian civilians and claim we started it, but the videos proved that wasn’t true.” One of those B’Tselem videos led to the 2017 conviction for manslaughter of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria, who shot and killed Palestinian stabber Abdel Fattah al-Sharif.
In a bid to stop the expansion of an Israeli settlement in the neighborhood of Tel Rumeida, in February 2007 Amro rented a Palestinian house that Israeli soldiers had just vacated, and planned to move in.
“The army arrested me, the police evicted me, the settlers attacked me, all at the same time. They said it was a closed military zone. Israeli attorney Michael Sfard represented me pro bono, and I would demonstrate outside the house and come by every time I saw a settler enter it. Finally in July 2007 the army allowed me to enter and live in it.” That house would become the headquarters of Amro’s new organization, Youth Against Settlements, founded in 2008.
The latest target of Amro’s activism is American Jews. In 2016, Amro invited Peter Beinart and members of the Center for Jewish Nonviolence to convert a Palestinian home in Tel Rumeida into a cinema. Beinart and the other activists wore blue T-shirts that read, “Occupation is not our Judaism.”
“We’ve lost faith in Israeli Jews,” Amro said, “because they’re acting according to their interests. But American Jews aren’t acting based on their personal interests, but based on their Jewish morals. And thank God, their Jewish morals and principles work in our favor. They don’t accept injustice and inequality. I tell them they must identify with me as Jews who suffered and continue to suffer. ‘Ask your father and your grandfather how much they’ve suffered. Now I’ve become like them!”
“During the war with Gaza,” he observed, “we saw how celebrities stood in solidarity with Gaza, and how American Jews were troubled by it. As a result, we’ve managed to reach many Jewish communities in the U.S.”
“For us, reaching Western communities, and especially Jewish communities, is very important.”
Amro’s work on the ground with his fellow Palestinians is often even more urgent. During the “stabbing intifada” that began in September 2015, Amro received phone calls from mothers in Hebron informing him that their children had taken knives and left the house. “I’d call the guys and we’d stand at the checkpoint to catch them,” he recalled.
“Once a girl sent me a message on Facebook that she wanted to die. I spent the entire night convincing her that this was wrong, but I’m no psychologist. I looked for a psychologist to speak to her, because in most cases there was a psychological background.” Warning Palestinian Authority security forces of the danger turned out to be a waste of time. “They did nothing,” Amro said. “And I went crazy, because I don’t want this girl to die. Before 2015 the IDF would arrest them; very rarely would they shoot a girl. But I knew that if she arrived at a checkpoint carrying a knife she’d be shot on the spot. It took an emotional toll on me to know that I could save their lives and didn’t do so.”
“At 10 a.m. she called me saying she was about to die and asked me to take care of her family. I called my friend and told him where she was. I recognized her location as Bab az-Zawiyeh from the sound of the vendors in the background, and she was on her way to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. My guys caught her and brought her back to her family. I consider this a huge achievement of mine.”
On another occasion, Amro himself leaped on a young woman waiting between olive trees to stab a settler near his home in Tel Rumeida. “My condition in returning her to her parents was that they don’t beat her, since she left home due to domestic violence. I brought her uncles and we negotiated for four hours. They promised me she would be treated differently, and indeed when I inquired recently, I learned she was fine.”
While many Palestinians lash out at their leadership for coordinating security with the Israeli government, Amro asserts that such coordination is vital for the safety of both Israelis and Palestinians. But he accuses PA officials such as Hussein al-Sheikh, the minister tasked with coordination with Israel, and Major General Majed Faraj, head of the General Intelligence Service, of becoming Israeli “security contractors.”
“Through the PA we’ve attained neither social rights nor political rights nor good governance,” Amro said. “These men are growing close to Israel outside the limits of security coordination. They’re working with the occupation for their personal interests—financial, political—and Israel agrees to that and protects their close circles. Hussein al-Sheikh has many people close to him who carry weapons and Israel never arrests them. Why? Because Israel wants to strengthen them. But that will inevitably backfire, because the public knows who’s corrupt and who isn’t.”
Elhanan Miller (@ElhananMiller) is a Jerusalem-based reporter specializing in the Arab world.