The first time I met the Palestinian human rights defender Issa Amro, it was just a few weeks after a terrorist attack in Jerusalem that had left three rabbis dead.
“I feel sorry, really,” Amro told me, an open palm against his chest and a look of pain on his face. “I feel that civilians should be completely away from the conflict.”
We were in the West Bank city of Hebron where Amro’s organization, Youth Against Settlements, convinces young Palestinians to oppose Israel’s Occupation non-violently. It was the first of many times I would ask Amro how he felt about Jews and Jewish life in the context of the conflict. And he would always answer the same way: We must encourage nonviolent resistance at all costs, and discourage any act of violence.
“My dream has always been to see my people in a mass movement of nonviolent resistance,” Amro wrote recently in these pages.
“Gandhi says, if you want to win with violence, you will win with violence, but the violence will stay in the community after you win,” he told an audience at NYU a year earlier. “Nonviolence strengthens the civil society in the best way. This is why we try to educate, to convince the Palestinians about nonviolence.”
Amro’s belief in nonviolence lies in its efficacy at restoring Palestinian human and civil rights, and in its impact on his community. But to me, it is also about something else.
Until this week, I would have told you that if you want to feel the sanctity of Jewish life, visit Issa Amro and his fellow activists at Youth Against Settlements. I would have told you how humbling it is to be in the West Bank, where Jews and Palestinians have different legal statuses, and to hear about nonviolence from someone whose rights have been blighted in order that mine could be expanded. I would have urged you to meet this Palestinian Gandhi who is regularly humiliated by settlers and the IDF soldiers who seem at their beck and call, yet all the while maintains enough dignity to think of my safety. Nonviolence. Go meet this man, I would have said.
Except now you can’t – because Issa Amro is in jail.
Earlier this week, Amro was arrested by the Palestinian Authority (PA). His crime was writing a Facebook post speaking up in support of a journalist who had criticized PA President Mahmoud Abbas and been arrested.
The official charges against Amro include speaking out against the authorities, posting something criminal on social media, and spreading division among the Palestinian people. These are all actions that under international human rights law qualify as free speech and basic human rights.
Amro’s arrest comes in the wake of a crackdown on free speech in the West Bank. In July, seven journalists were arrested, and in that sweep, the PA recognized Amro’s large following, and were concerned at the power he wielded online.
But Amro is also currently embroiled in another court case. He faces 18 charges in Israel’s military court, including “insulting a soldier” and “incitement”.
An IDF spokesperson would not comment on whether Israel coordinated this arrest with the Palestinian Authority, and there isn’t any evidence to suggest that they did, says journalist Akram Natsheh, a journalist who is close to Amro and who is in touch with Amro’s lawyers. He did say that the conditions Amro is suffering through under the PA are worse than those of the Israeli prisons Amro has been in and out of over 20 times.
Why the Palestinian Authority would arrest a man fighting for Palestinian national determination is a mystery – just as mysterious as why Israel would pursue an activist committed to nonviolence. If anyone should represent the joint interests of Palestinians and Israelis, it’s Issa Amro.
And yet they can only agree on the need to silence him.
They wont succeed. Amro has a host of international supporters, including nine U.S. members of Congress, who recently signed a letter demanding Amro’s release. “Free and fair public debate is critical to establishing peace in the region,” write the members of Congress.
But Amro’s cause is not only the cause of free speech and the right to self-determination. Amro embodies the belief that Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza can end in a nonviolent way. He represents the hope that Palestinians will achieve full human and civil rights without the spilling of more Jewish blood. He represents hope in a future that values Jew and Arab equally. And as such, Amro is the future of this conflict, if it will ever be resolved.
Anyone invested in the future of the Middle East, Israel, Jews, and Palestinians, must take up Issa Amro’s cause as their own.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the Opinion Editor of the Forward.