The U.S. Congress is one of the worst places to get a fair hearing as a Palestinian.
On a bipartisan basis, the body leans heavily toward the Israeli government — regularly passing one-sided resolutions with overwhelming majorities, frequently traveling to Israel to meet with the right-wing government, and even inviting the Israeli prime minister to speak before Congress to bash American policy. It sometimes even holds hearings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without inviting a single Palestinian.
This policy is most harmful to Palestine’s nonviolent activists, who are often persecuted by both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. As Newsweek’s Jeff Stein writes, the answer to “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?” is that those who advocate “nonviolence and led peaceful marches, boycotts, mass sit-downs and the like are mostly dead, in jail, marginalized or in exile.” Without external advocates, Palestinians who nonviolently demand their freedom are easy to suppress.
But that’s starting to change. A small but important set of members of Congress recently met with and advocated for a Palestinian activist who the Israelis have accused of inciting violence — a charge he will face in court later this month. Needless to say, it is rare for American lawmakers to take up the cause of a man their Israeli allies claim is encouraging violence.
That man is Issa Amro, a human rights activist who lives in Hebron, a city in the occupied West Bank that the Israeli army has encamped with walls and fences to guard less than 1,000 Israeli settlers in a population of 200,000 Palestinians.
Amro has for years worked to end the occupation of the Palestinians and for a peaceful resolution with his Israeli neighbors, first with the Israeli NGO B’Tselem and later with the organization Youth Against Settlements.
His activism led both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to arrest him on vague charges of incitement and rioting, something that Amro and the international human rights community find laughable.
As Amro explained in an interview with The Intercept conducted during a short visit to Washington, D.C., he is a lifelong believer in human rights, purposely eschewing violent resistance to occupation.
His first act of organizing was as a student at Palestine Polytechnic University, where he studied engineering. After the Israeli military shut the university down in 2003, he organized nonviolent protests to force it to reopen.
“According to international law occupied people are allowed to use armed resistance and peaceful resistance,” Amro told The Intercept. “For me, [I have chosen] peaceful resistance for many reasons. The first reason is that it’s a community resistance. It strengthens the Palestinian civil society. Armed resistance doesn’t at all. … It neutralizes the power of the opponent, they can’t use their military power in the same way they use it on other kinds of resistance. Nonviolent resistance generates support from the outside.”
He also expressed a personal moral conviction about hurting other human beings, even those who have subjected his people to conditions many have likened to South Africa’s apartheid system.
“We don’t harm human beings, as the human being is the most important asset on earth,” he said.
Amro is due to appear in an Israeli military court on October 22 to face charges of incitement and conducting illegal protests. These courts have a reputation for being notoriously unfair to Palestinians, with a nearly 100 percent conviction rate.
But because Amro chose nonviolence as his means to resist the Israeli occupation, his case has indeed generated support from outside observers, including members of the U.S. Congress.
Jewish Voice for Peace, the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, and Code Pink lobbied members of Congress to get involved in Amro’s case, and encouraged the lawmakers to pressure the State Department to make clear to Israel that its American benefactors are closely watching what happens to Amro.
“Issa Amro is an powerful community leader who brings people together to resist occupation in creative, nonviolent campaigns to challenge the separate and unequal policies imposed on Palestinians in occupied Hebron,” Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, said in a statement. “We’ve worked with Issa and with Youth Against Settlements for years, and it was only natural for us to join together with other partners to support him as he faces attacks for his human rights work. There’s a reason he is facing such trumped up charges, because his work for justice and equality is undeniably inspiring.”
In May, four senators — Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, and Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy — sent a letter urging Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to monitor Amro’s case closely. Over the summer, 34 House Democrats signed onto letters to Tillerson with a similar message.
Washington Democratic Rep. Adam Smith told The Intercept in a statement that dozens of his constituents, as well as a peace group named after an American activist slain by an Israeli bulldozer driver, pushed him to speak out on Amro’s behalf:
My Congressional office was contacted by the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice in June 2017 to help highlight Issa Amro’s peaceful protest activities, as well as raise concerns about his case in Israel. In addition to similar letters sent by my colleagues in Congress, I wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in June of 2017 to ask that he further look into Mr. Amro’s situation. There was significant outreach from constituents in the Ninth District, with nearly 40 individuals voicing their support for Mr. Amro’s human rights work. My letter to Secretary Tillerson requests that he work with Israeli authorities to review Mr. Amro’s case and ensure his right to due process is upheld. The State Department has confirmed that they are following the case closely and continue to attend Mr. Amro’s hearings. During my recent meeting with Mr. Amro in my Washington, D.C. office, I reiterated my support for peaceful political organization and non-violent civil disobedience.
Amro visited Washington, D.C., in late September and met with members of Congress, whom he personally thanked for their advocacy on his behalf, he told The Intercept. It is rare for Congress to recognize the existence of political persecution in the Palestinian territories, let alone speak up for an individual activist. He believes the congresspeople’s support will help him in his upcoming trial.
“It has a huge effect,” he said. “At least I am recognized in the U.S. here as a human rights defender. That gives me a lot of support within my community and in front of the Israeli occupation forces as they can’t claim I’m a terrorist.”
He said he found a receptive audience among lawmakers.
“I asked them to really intervene to end occupation and to help us as Palestinians to get our freedom and justice and equality as everybody else in the world,” Amro said he told the members of Congress he met with. “They respect my work, I [got] a lot of positive feedback from them about what I’m doing and my peaceful approach. They are considering to either come to Palestine or to speak about Palestinian rights here or pass legislation in the Congress to support Palestinian human rights.”
However, Congress’s general hesitance to speak critically of Israel was not lost on Amro during the meetings.
“I felt a few of them are a little bit hesitant to go public, not to be criticized by the right-wing groups here in the U.S. That made me feel a little bit that the occupation is destroying even the democracy in the United States,” he said.
Amro reserved special praise for Sanders, whom he met with two weeks ago.
“The first thing I told him was, ‘You are my hero. And if I was an American I would campaign for you to win the election,’” he said. “I quote him always when he said in one of his public meetings that he admired the energy of the youth, and the young generation, and he can’t make a change alone as a president of the United States. He needs all of the young energy to be with him to make a real change. I wanted what Sanders wants for the Americans for the Palestinians, too. The freedom, the equality, the justice.”
Sanders’s office declined to comment, citing the private nature of the meeting.