The West Bank city of Hebron is where Palestinians and Israeli settlers live within yards of each other – separated by Israeli barricades and soldiers. It’s long been a place filled with friction, and over the past three months, nearly one out of three Palestinian attacks have taken place here, according to the Israeli military.
It’s also the place where Palestinian activist Issa Amro is trying to preach nonviolence to Palestinians.
“I studied all the international history of nonviolence,” he says. “All of them,” he adds, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi to Gene Sharp, an American professor known for his extensive writings on the topic.
Amro’s activism started in 2002, when he says Israeli troops closed his college campus. He organized a sit-in and protests that he says pressured them to reopen classes.
“From that time, I’m working hard to educate more and more Palestinians about how to have a massive nonviolence revolution in Palestine and reach civil disobedience against the occupation,” he says.
Amro, 35, works with Palestinians to videotape what he says is settler harassment of Palestinians in the city. He flouts Israeli military restrictions by helping organize Palestinian marches down a main street closed to Palestinians, which the army says is closed to prevent attacks.
He also organizes activities for youth in Hebron. Amro runs a youth center, called Youth Against Settlements, out of his home. He organizes English and Hebrew courses. He frequently works with Israeli peace activists. He even started a kindergarten nearby where an Israeli teaches Palestinian kids yoga.
A Hard Sell
But nonviolence is hard to promote these days. When young Palestinians open their Facebook accounts, they see praise for their peers who Israel accused of attempted attacks and were killed by Israeli soldiers. Political factions put posters of them on the streets.
A few months ago, Amro got an urgent phone call from a neighbor who said there was an 18-year-old Palestinian girl in a doorway, holding a knife, poised to stab the first Israeli who walked by. Amro says he went over to talk the girl out of it, saying she’d just get killed.
“I told her, ‘Why do you want to kill yourself first?'” he recalls. “She said, ‘You know, this is the way I defend, I resist. Settlers are getting wild, because nobody (makes) them accountable.’ I told her, ‘Listen, you know, we can make them accountable. We can work hard, you know. Come, we give you lessons and training about, you know, nonviolent resistance.'”
After more than an hour, he convinced her not to go through with an attack, and Palestinian security officials took her into custody, he says. Amro wouldn’t provide the girl’s name but the neighbor backed up the story. And though Amro considers it a success, it’s a story he hesitated to share because it wouldn’t be viewed favorably by many Palestinians, and that he could be accused of aiding Israel.
Samira Halayka, a Palestinian parliament member in Hebron, says she likes Amro’s group, but thinks people should focus on stopping the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, not stopping Palestinian attacks. She says the attacks are “national acts” with broad Palestinian support, a position backed by a recent poll.
Friction With Settlers
Amro faces other obstacles from Israelis. Hebron settler activist Baruch Marzel called Amro a “provocateur,” saying his videotaping of Jewish settlers is a violation of their privacy. Marzel accused him of harboring Palestinian attackers in his home, which Amro denied.
The Israeli army recently arrested Amro as he held a discussion group at his home that included a teenage boy the army accused of previously throwing a knife at soldiers.
In a statement, the army said forces arrested Amro for hosting the suspect in his home. Both were eventually released and no charges were filed. The army declined comment.
After the arrests, Jewish settlers camped out in front of Amro’s home. Amro said it was a pressure tactic against him. Settler activist Marzel declined comment.
The army then added his home to a restricted area in the city where only residents are allowed to enter – keeping his youth out. The Israeli army said in a statement that the restriction on non-residents in the area is to prevent attacks. Amro says all the restrictions on Palestinians in Hebron will do the opposite.
“If they continue like that, violence will be 10 times more than what is it now,” he says.
Now that his youth center is closed off, the youth meetings and the Hebrew classes are on hold. Amro says reaching out to the youth of Hebron is an uphill battle that has gotten even tougher.