Seeking the Nonviolent Path to Peace in Hebron, West Bank

The Nonviolent Palestinian Activists Working for Peace in the West Bank

May 3,  2015

By Batya Ungar Sargon.

Excerpts below. Link to FULL ARTICLE.

My silent guide was taking me to meet Issa Amro, his longtime mentor and the founder of Youth Against Settlements, a nonviolent movement in the heart of the West Bank city of Hebron…..

Amro is one of dozens of leaders across the West Bank and East Jerusalem who are using nonviolent tactics, civil disobedience, and direct action to challenge Israel’s occupation.

The work of these activists has gone nearly unrecognized, with most of the international media attention focusing on rockets launched from Gaza and the increasing dominance of the right wing in Israeli politics.

But for the past eight years, the group has been working to instill the principles of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience in the hearts of Hebron’s Palestinian youth, even if no one is watching.

Amro was a university student studying engineering when he first became aware of the power of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance. It was 2003, and the West Bank was deeply mired in the bloodshed of the Second Intifada. The Israeli army closed the University of Hebron and Palestine Polytechnic University, reportedly welding shut the doors and preventing students and faculty from entering.

Amro was part of a group of students who formed a committee in order to figure out how to restore their right to an education. They began to study other examples of nonviolence throughout history. They read about Ghandi, the South African anti-Apartheid movement, and Martin Luther King Junior. They read the works of Gene Sharp, and they protested. And eventually, Israel reopened the university.

The struggle left a lasting impression. “From that time, all my life is in this way,” Amro told me in the center in Tel Rumeida.

Though he has a full-time job working in development at the vocational training centers in Palestine, Amro has devoted every moment of his spare time—he estimates about 70 hours a week—to nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience, with the belief that it is the most effective means of resistance….

It’s not easy cleaving to his values. Amro, who is known by name and face to many of Hebron’s soldiers, is frequently stopped. He remembers a time when the frequent detentions would infuriate him, and can still call up those feelings. “Sometimes I feel that I want to be exploded from inside,” he said. But his mission is about transformative power, a lesson he learned from other organizations and which he now passes on.

“We give training to our activists how to transform our power from negative to positive,” he explained.

Whereas once he would get angry at soldiers for detaining him, now he has a new tactic: He jokes with them, engaging them in conversation, about food, family, the weather, sex. “We embarrass them with personal interaction. We embarrass them by inviting them to eat,” he explained. When settlers insult him, Amro says “Thank you very much. It’s not good to say these things on Shabbat.”

Amro opened the center for Youth Against Settlements in 2007…..

Youth Against Settlements partners with Breaking the Silence to make videos, which are often used by Palestinian and Israeli media alike to report on the West Bank. On Fridays, international and Israeli delegations come to listen to Amro. He takes them on tours to increase awareness of the situation in Hebron, to show them Palestinians “as we are.” The center has a hotline, and provides support and lawyers for people who get arrested. Youth Against Settlements also offers Hebrew classes, leadership training, and film screenings.

Homes were falling into disrepair. Families couldn’t get basic services. So Amro organized a group of volunteers to go from house to house, family to family. Amro would assess the home, and others would paint, clean up the soldiers’ “leftovers,”—their shit—and fix what needed fixing. They would play with the children, and invariably, the families would invite them to eat, and relationships would develop. People began to ask after each other. The first family serviced joined the group, and went to the second family to help them.

In the beleaguered neighborhood of 250 families, Amro had fostered a community.

Next, he established a kindergarten. With hundreds of volunteers working in shifts, he restored another house. All the materials—including toys and batteries—were smuggled in through the graveyard, “as if we were smuggling guns,” Amro recalled. One person would watch the soldiers, another the settlers, and the group would sneak under the cloak of darkness into the house. They were sometimes caught, their materials confiscated. They started again. Eventually, Amro had his kindergarten.

“It’s the only public space created in 20 years,” he said proudly. “We control our kids’ education.” He teaches the children—there are 30 of them—about nonviolence. They have yoga on Mondays.

He has bigger plans ahead: He wants to convert an abandoned army factory into a cinema, and someday he’d like to be be minister of education for all of Palestine, where he would teach civil disobedience from the first to the tenth grade. Civil disobedience and the power of nonviolent resistance isn’t something that comes naturally, Amro says. You need training, and a culture of nonviolence that suffuses into schools and other places where young people congregate. Until his dream is realized, Amro goes from school to school in the West Bank, teaching kids not to throw stones, not to give soldiers and excuse to shoot.

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