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Natalie and Issa at Ofer Military Court in 2020. Photo: Nine by Five Media

Natalie and Issa at Ofer Military Court in 2020. Photo: Nine by Five Media

The Israeli state’s clampdown on Youth Against Settlements is relentless but our side isn’t taking it lying down, reports Natalie Strecker

Issa Amro is a name everybody knows in Hebron and indeed Issa is internationally renowned within the Palestinian solidarity movement for his courageous work non-violently resisting and drawing attention to the settler colonialist project taking place, of course in the wider West Bank, but also in his birth city of Hebron or Al Khalil.

Issa is the co-founder and former coordinator of ‘Youth Against Settlements’ (YAS), which encourages the youth of Hebron to take up the call to resist the occupation through the proactive nonviolent methods used by those in the civil rights movements and is also the founder of ‘Humans of Hebron’, which seeks to humanise the Palestinians of his city who have endured 53years living under Israel’s military boot.

In 2010 Issa was declared the ‘Human Rights Defender of the Year in Palestine’ by the UN’s ‘Office Commission of Human Rights (OCHR), he has travelled the world to share his and his community’s experiences living under Israel’s apartheid system and occupation, speaking at the Human Rights Council in Geneva and also meeting Bernie Sanders, who stood as the progressive nominee for the Democrat’s US Presidential Candidate race. Issa has also rightly been referred to as Palestine’s ‘Gandhi’.

Harassed

It is perhaps no surprise then that as Israel seeks to suppress Palestinian resistance no matter what form it takes, not just in Palestine, but across the world, Issa has found himself singled out, harassed and targeted by his oppressors for his human rights work. This culminated in Issa facing 18 fabricated legal charges, which he has been attending military court hearings for at Ofer over the last few years.

Issa is one of the fortunate ones, in that he has legal representation by the excellent and formidable Israeli Human Rights Lawyer, Gaby Lasky; however, in a court that is presided over by your oppressors and in Issa’s case, a military judge whom is a settler himself with connections to the Hebron settler community and with a proven and documented conviction rate of over 99%, this unfortunately gives little reason for confidence.

Whilst serving as a Human Rights Monitor in Hebron in 2018, I attended Ofer Court with Issa. It was the second time I had attended the court, the first time was with an NGO based in Israel called ‘Military Court Watch’.

Legality

What I observed on both occasions was horrific and haunts me to this day: where proven lies were accepted as legitimate evidence, where the accused was treated with utter contempt and disdain and had to make their case to those guilty of ethnically cleansing their homeland and subjecting them to an apartheid system, itself defined as a crime against humanity under international law.

To this day I cannot comprehend how anybody could possibly consider this court of injustice as holding any legality and it shames us all when our governments make the claim that Israel is a liberal democracy.

I have introduced you to Issa the Human Rights Defender, but now I want to introduce you to Issa, my friend.

I had the privilege of being ‘introduced’ to Issa in 2015 by the inspiring firebrand and ‘Code Pink’ activist that is Ariel Gold, an American Jew. Ariel had connected us in order for me, as co-founder and chair of Jersey Palestine Solidarity Campaign, to support Youth Against Settlement’s annual ‘Open Shuhada’ campaign.

Direct

Issa and I spoke many times, but we first met in 2016 when I visited the region due to wishing to understand more the issues on the ground. In 2018, I was posted to Hebron for 3 months to serve as a Human Rights Monitor. This was a life defining experience for me, but also was the period when Issa became to me, a dear and respected friend.

Issa, like all of us has many layers: he is strong, courageous, outspoken and direct, but he is also incredibly insightful, supportive, humble and so very thoughtful. On this theme I would like to share just three of the many precious experiences I got to share with Issa.

One day after four weeks of working long and arduous hours giving protective presence and recording human rights violations and trying to somehow make sense of everything I was witnessing and the inhumanity of the situation, I hit rock bottom after having seen the humiliation of a young teenage boy and then, when visiting his family, becoming aware of the abject poverty they were experiencing as a consequence of the occupation.

I, after having been given a key by Issa, went to sit in the gardens of the YAS Centre in Tel Rumeida, one of the quieter places you can go in the old city and I sobbed. Issa found me and he said to me, “you need to take a break”, which I had already planned to take the next day. Issa instructed me to go and pack my stuff and he would organise my transport to where I had planned to take my days off.

As always, he wouldn’t take no for an answer and I went back to my apartment where I was staying and met him a short while later at a junction of what is known locally as ‘Happy Bunny’. Issa walked me to a taxi of a friend of his and said to me: “my friend will take you to the door, now go rest and I will see you in a couple of days”.

I felt two things at that moment, overwhelming gratitude, but also the burden of European privilege. You see, I knew I got to take a rest that he doesn’t ever get to take. A couple of days later I came back and Issa, as he always did, ‘checked in’ on me to make sure I was okay.

Tears

Issa, as I quickly discovered was the norm with Palestinians, was very protective of those who came to try to support them, the irony of course is not unacknowledged. He even insisted on things such as having someone walk me home at night.

Issa was also who I went to when I wanted to check that the Arabic tattoo I was about to have stating ‘Free Palestine’ in Ramallah (my first ever tattoo and for me a rebellious act of resistance in response to all I had seen), was correct and that I didn’t end up living to regret the moment by having some dubious words forever imprinted on my skin.

Then there was my final night in Hebron, a night when my heart broke. Along with the many tears that were shed, however, there were also many, many laughs! I went to the YAS centre, where I went almost every evening to spend my free time with the local activists and of course, frequent visitors and volunteers with the centre.

Unbeknown to me, Issa had organised a special pizza and kanafe party for me. There was music, the nightly campfire, conversation and then there was the long and drawn-out goodbyes.

Implore

As I left my posting, I knew that I would never be the same again, the Palestinians taught me so very much about life, about courage, about steadfastness, which they refer to as ‘sumud’; but Issa gave me valuable lessons in true friendship and for this reason he will forever remain one of the greatest and impactful friends of my life.

Issa advised me in recent days that he had been informed by his lawyer that his fate will be decided imminently by Israel, a fate that of course is likely to be incarceration for a substantial period of time, in a prison system that itself has been condemned by human rights agencies for violating the most basic rights of prisoners.

Issa shared with me his hope that no matter what comes, that it will not come without cost to Israel, that it will not be done silently. ‘Frontline Defenders’, ‘Amnesty International’ and ‘Friends of Hebron’ have all issued a call to draw attention to Israel’s political oppression of Issa and to advocate for the charges to be dropped. I now implore you, however, not just as a Palestinian solidarity activist and a campaigner, but as Issa’s friend that you please take up this call and to do all you can to help Issa to be able to continue with his vital work of putting Israel’s crimes in the spotlight and supporting his community until a just peace is achieved.

Yes, Issa Amro is an internationally renowned UN formerly recognised human rights defender, but he is also for me, a much-loved friend.

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