Military trials held by the Israeli army – a defining feature of the 50-year occupation – have a near 100-percent conviction rate and fall well short of any standards of justice. I recently attended a hearing in the trial of Palestinian human rights defenders Issa Amro and Farid al-Atrash, which is following down the same, well-trodden path.
The two face charges stemming from a February 2016 protest. Amro, the prominent founder and coordinator of Youth Against Settlements, and al-Atrash, head of the southern division of the Palestinian statutory watchdog Independent Commission of Human Rights, were charged with “demonstrating without license,” “entering a closed military zone,” “incitement,” and “obstructing an officer.” Israeli authorities have engaged in what United Nations experts deemed in 2013 a years-long “pattern of harassment,” including repeated arrests, against Amro, who also currently faces 14 other charges related to his nonviolent activism.
The protesters were demanding Israeli authorities reopen al-Shuhada Street in Hebron, a key artery that the Israeli military has heavily restricted for the 40,000 Palestinians of Hebron to protect 500 Israeli settlers who reside in the area. Israeli restrictions, which include over 100 physical obstacles across Hebron, 18 of them permanently staffed checkpoints, have transformed al-Shuhada street from a vibrant street full of Palestinian shops and shoppers into a virtual ghost town of shuttered windows and graffiti.
At the July 9 hearing, two soldiers who policed the demonstration offered testimony riddled with inconsistencies and which appeared to offer no evidence to support the government’s allegations about Amro and Atrash’s conduct.
Sitting in the courtroom, I couldn’t escape feeling that Amro and al-Atrash were on trial for trying to bring a sense of normalcy back to their city and pushing back against entrenched Israeli discrimination that has dominated their daily life since birth. Occupation inherently disrupts normalcy in the name of security, yet the law of occupation envisions that disruption as exceptional and temporary. Yet, in year 51 of an occupation two-thirds the life of the Israeli state, Israel continues to prosecute Palestinians on charges related to their peaceful exercise of free expression and shrink the space for human rights defenders to operate.
As Amro and al-Atrash’s attorney Gabi Lasky of the Israeli organization Human Rights Defenders Fund said: “It seems that the indictment and court procedures are the way of the occupation to silence nonviolent demonstrators calling peacefully to open al-Shuhada street in Hebron by criminalizing their acts.”