On March 20, 2013, former U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Israel for a visit. As Air Force One made its landing at Ben Gurion International Airport, dozens of Palestinian activists a few dozen miles away, in Hebron, held a demonstration against the Israeli occupation and the racist segregation of the city’s Shuhada Street, which has been closed off to Palestinians since the Ibrahimi Mosque Massacre in 1994.
The Palestinian activists, who arrived alongside several Israeli Jews, entered Shuhada Street from a nearby alleyway while wearing Martin Luther Ling Jr. masks and shirts that read “I Have a Dream.” Within a minute, and after they marched only a few dozen meters, Israeli soldiers began to push them back. Settlers from the nearby Beit Hadassah complex pounced on the protesters, who were accompanied by local and international journalists.
The settlers, who understood the media potential of filming soldiers arresting people in MLK masks, tore them off from the Palestinians’ faces. The soldiers, a constant presence in the area, dispersed the protesters and arrested several of them.
One of those arrested was Issa Amro, a prominent activist in Hebron who has long been a target of Israeli settlers, the army, and the police.
In an interview following his arrest, Amro said that he had watched the footage of the protest from the police station. “I understood that we succeeded, that our message went out to the rest of the world.”
Amro, a veteran activist, has been recognized as a UN human rights defender. He is the founder of the Youth Against Settlements, a community center in the Hebron neighborhood of Tel Rumeida, adjacent to Shuhada Street, which works to fight the expulsion of Palestinians from the area, and serves as a space for teens and adults. There, Amro has led workshops on documenting violence and hosted thousands of Israelis and international activists to tour the city.
Eight years after that arrest, in January 2021, an Israeli military court convicted Amro over his participation in a number of nonviolent demonstrations in Hebron against the occupation, including the MLK protest.
Amro was convicted on one count of assault; two counts of taking part in an illegal procession; two counts of obstructing a soldier in the line of duty; and one count of participating in an illegal demonstration. In several instances at these demonstrations, Amro was subjected to violence from soldiers and police officers as he was arrested.
Despite the court’s conviction, Amro was acquitted on 12 other charges, after the military prosecution was unable to provide evidence to support their claims — including that Amro had attacked a public servant and a soldier, damaged property, and violated a closed military zone order.
Amro on the charges against him and why they are politically motivated:
The prosecution is demanding that Amro be given a suspended sentence and a fine. The judge is expected to make a decision within a few weeks whether to publish the sentence directly or to hold a sentence hearing.
The 99-page verdict offers a fascinating look into the way Israel criminalizes Palestinian political activists.
Refusing to ask the occupier’s permission
Amro was indicted in July 2016 on 18 counts over several incidents that took place since 2010. In last month’s verdict, the military court rejected the defense’s argument that some of the charges were brought six years after the incidents took place.
Lt. Col. Menachem Liberman, who presided over the case, stated during the hearing that for years the prosecution refrained from filing an indictment, “but having found that the defendant’s actions went overboard, [the authorities] filed an indictment over all the incidents of the last decade.”
Palestinians in the occupied West Bank are not free to demonstrate, and any protest of more than 10 people is considered illegal unless it has prior approval from the Israeli authorities. Palestinian political activists deliberately do not request permission from Israel as a political principle; it is also unclear how such a request can even be made, let alone approved.
Liberman took pride in the fact that he included a short summary of the verdict in English in honor of the diplomats and foreign reporters who came to Amro’s hearings. Copies of the translation were distributed after the hearing.
Amro’s attorneys, Gaby Lasky and Reham Nasra, argued that the verdict was a clear example of selective enforcement, since Amro was the only person among the many Palestinian and Israeli activists arrested in the aforementioned protests who was indicted. Liberman rejected this argument in his verdict: “In order to meet the judicial requirements for proving selective enforcement, it must be shown that the authority acted on the basis of extraneous considerations or to achieve an unacceptable goal, things that have not been proven in this case.”
Israel’s military courts are formally authorized to try anyone who commits a crime anywhere in the West Bank, including Israeli citizens and foreign nationals. However, in the beginning of the 1980s, the attorney general ruled that Israelis should be tried in a civilian court inside Israel according to the national penal system — even if they live in the occupied territories and committed a crime against Palestinians.
‘Crossing a border’
Amro’s conviction exemplifies how Israel’s military justice system functions, and how Palestinian activists — including human rights defenders committed to nonviolence — have little chances of being acquitted. It was only after the prosecution failed to provide evidence regarding two counts of “assault” and “deliberate property destruction” that it recanted the two charges.
I was in Hebron on the morning of Obama’s visit in 2013, alongside the other journalists at the protest. I remember how, minutes after it began, Israeli soldiers spotted Amro and arrested him; he was unable to march more than a few dozen meters on Shuhada Street.
As can be seen in footage of the arrest, the soldiers threw Amro onto the ground before taking him aside and removing the MLK mask from his face. The protest included between 10 to 15 activists and a similar number of journalists and photographers.
One of the witnesses at the trial, whose testimony was cited in the verdict, was Ofir Ben Moshe, a former soldier who served in Hebron and was one of the first to arrive at the protest in an army jeep.
“It was actually the day Obama came to Israel, and we were on alert and were brought to the area with the company commander. We recognized 50-60 people walking toward an area that was off-limits, and [they] were actually crossing a border. After that we unloaded from the vehicle and I was with the company commander and we just stopped the incident so that they wouldn’t reach areas where Jews live.”
The “off limits” area Ben Moshe refers to is Shuhada Street, on which Palestinians are barred from walking. When a soldier says Palestinians are “crossing a border,” he reveals that the army’s job in the area is to maintain a “border” between Jewish settlers and Palestinians.
Ben Moshe’s account is not an anomaly. In a testimony to the Israeli anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence, one soldier who served between 2001 and 2004 in the Civil Administration — the arm of Israel’s military government that governs the daily life of Palestinians in the West Bank — said: “When you arrive, Shuhada is closed to Palestinian foot traffic… this is a given… no one explained it to me. I saw it with my own eyes.”
Ben Moshe continued his testimony and described what happened that day:
“They were wearing Obama masks and signs, and in fact Issa had the megaphone, he organized the event himself and united everyone. During their march we stopped them and I was instructed to take him aside, and then more forces arrived and we stopped him. It should be noted during the incident that there was shoving, cursing, and there were only two soldiers — me and the lieutenant colonel — and to take over such an amount [of people] — we faced a lot of shoving.”
Apartheid in a street
Amro’s own testimony, which was heard after all the other witnesses, lasted five hours. While Palestinian testimonies in military courts are generally delivered in Arabic with the help of a translator, Amro was granted permission to testify in English.
“I do not know the difference between a legal and illegal protest. We protested legally […] that Palestinians have a dream of freedom, equality, and justice, just like Israelis, and I take care to do this without insulting or attacking soldiers or settlers in my neighborhood, where I was born, where I now live. I was attacked by the settlers, one of whom came up to me and removed the Martin Luther King Jr. mask from my face, and I was arrested in a place where I am allowed to be, and was taken by soldiers. The law is very unclear, you never know exactly what is allowed or forbidden, and its implementation is according to [the authorities’] mood. If [marching] wasn’t legal, why don’t they indict the [settlers] the same way I have been indicted?”
During his testimony, the army prosecutor asked Amro about the fact that in May 2012, the Israeli police “presented him with a map to show him exactly where he can and cannot walk on Shuhada Street.”
Amro responded: “What I remember is that a judge once asked the police to put up street signs, [to show] where one can and cannot walk.”
“You don’t remember that you sat with the police and they showed you where you can and cannot walk?” the prosecutor asked.
“I don’t remember. I only remember that the court ordered the police to put up signs. For example, I have confirmation from that attorney general that the road was accidentally closed. I will bring it to the next hearing.”
Shuhada Street was shut down to traffic in 1994 after Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler from the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba, opened fire and murdered 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. In 2001, at the height of the Second Intifada, the street was completely blocked off to Palestinians. Since then, Palestinians who live on the street can only enter their homes by climbing on the roofs or through holes in the wall.
In 2004, when the Hebron municipality petitioned the Israeli High Court to open Shuhada, the army claimed that the street was not closed off. Video evidence was brought in 2006 to show that Palestinians could not enter, leading the then-attorney general in the West Bank to claim that it was a “mistake” that had gone on for six years. The street was then opened for three days, after which the military commander again barred the Palestinians from entering, except for those who lived on it.
The High Court held another hearing on Shuhada in 2007. Ahead of the hearing, the IDF opened the doors of homes that it had welded shut on the street, and allowed the Palestinian families to exit their homes using the street. This was possible for a period of three months, after which the ban was reinstated and remains to this day.
The court then rejected the petition in 2011 because it was convinced that the two humanitarian concessions granted to the Palestinians indicated goodwill, and therefore the matter could be resolved outside of the court.
After Judge Liberman rejected Amro’s lawyers’ claims of selective enforcement, he dryly stated that convicting Amro required proof that he participated in the march that included 10 persons or more for a political purpose (or one that can be interpreted as political) and without a permit.”
He then stated that “factually, as will be further clarified, there is no dispute that the defendant participated in the march at the time and place that appears on the indictment sheet, and that he did not have a permit to do so.”
Regarding the number of participants, Liberman noted that despite the controversy in the matter, the videos show that there were demonstrators in the place “above the permitted amount.” He did not comment on the fact that some of those shown in the video were journalists and settlers.
Although Amro was arrested for walking on Shuhada Street, Liberman ruled that:
“the reason for the arrest was not where the defendant was, but with whom he was and what he was doing. Said law applies to people seeking to gather together for a political purpose, and this case is undoubtedly a gathering intended to promote a political purpose of opening a street for Palestinian travel, to obtain prior approval for doing so, even if the gathering takes place where that person is allowed to be.”
The judge did not address the fact that Palestinians are routinely detained and arrested even when walking on Shuhada Street by themselves.
The defense lawyers argued that the soldiers did not declare the protest an illegal gathering, and that according to Israeli law, gatherings can only be deemed illegal if the army or the police declare it so, or after the protesters refuse to disperse. Security forces also must give the demonstrators a reasonable period of time to evacuate.
Liberman, however, ruled that “it is doubtful in my view whether a requirement for the police (or other security forces) to declare a gathering illegal in order for it to be considered as such is based on sound legal grounds.”
Responding to the defense’s argument that the court should protect the right to demonstrate — even in the West Bank — the judge ruled that in Amro’s case, there was no need to do so, since the defendant made no effort to hold a legal protest. In other words, because Amro did not seek prior approval from the authorities against whom he is protesting, in a proceeding that is unlikely to exist at all, he has no right to seek the court’s protection.
Always a political trial
Another section of the indictment referred to “obstructing a soldier in the line of duty.” The defense argued that there is no basis to indict Amro on this count since the soldiers acted outside the scope of their duty. The attorneys noted that no evidence was provided to justify the demand to arrest Amro during the protest, and in the absence of grounds for arrest, one cannot be indicted for obstructing a soldier.
The judge countered that one must interpret the phrase “line of duty” in the West Bank as “different from the interpretation it is given in Israel.” According to him, if it can be proven that there was an illegal gathering, it is enough to arrest Amro.
Liberman added that “the threshold required for a person to be convicted of the offense of obstructing a soldier is not particularly high,” before adding: “A person’s refusal to accompany a police officer who seeks to arrest and bring him to a police station is considered a disturbance.” Thus, even a completely nonviolent or passive person can be indicted for such an offense.
At a certain point, Liberman further referred to the role of international law. Perhaps due to the presence of diplomats throughout the trial, the judge referred to the 1966 International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, to which Israel is a signatory, with an emphasis on Article 21, which deals with freedom of expression — including the right to protest.
Liberman then reiterated Israel’s official position that the treaty does not apply to the “region” [the West Bank], because during the period neither the Jordanians, who controlled the West Bank when the treaty was passed, nor the Israelis ratified it.
With nearly 100 pages of the verdict at his disposal, the judge clearly made considerable efforts to explain the decision to convict Amro while acquitting him on two-thirds of the charges to show that, in the occupied territories, “justice” can prevail.
Yet despite responding to every argument put forth by the defense in reference to international law and the right to protest, Liberman refrained from responding to the most fundamental claim: in a trial of a Palestinian political activist in an Israeli military court, when the judge and the prosecutor wear the same army uniform, there will never be justice. It will always be a political trial, even if the judge refuses to admit as much.
Amro was convicted because he, alongside a small group of people, dared to march on a road that was closed off to Palestinians. A road that, perhaps more than anything, symbolizes the apartheid regime that exists in the West Bank, and which Israel’s military justice system props up on a daily basis.