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A Palestinian in Israeli Military Court: Issa Amro, the Judge, & Me

Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images
Palestinian activist Issa Amro arriving for a previous hearing at the Israeli-run Ofer military court, Betunia, near Ramallah, West Bank, July 9, 2017

Two roads lead to the two separate entrances of the Ofer prison and military court in the West Bank, where Palestinians living under Israeli military rule in that territory are tried and sentenced. One road comes from the Palestinian territories. It leads to an outdoor waiting area, where Palestinian defendants and their families wait for their names to be called over a loudspeaker. The other road comes from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It leads to a guard booth, where you hand over your passport and, if you are on a list, you are waved through to a security check. This entrance is used by lawyers, dignitaries, and, early in April, me.

I was at Ofer as a journalist to attend the trial of Issa Amro, a Palestinian activist from Hebron. I have been writing about Amro for five years with growing admiration, visiting him in Hebron, chronicling his work, and publishing his words preaching nonviolent resistance against Israel’s occupation, where so many choose either violence or submission. These efforts have brought him growing prominence both internationally and within his own community. Together with the Hebron-based organization he founded, Youth Against Settlements, Amro has become famous for the kind of civil disobedience developed by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

“Gandhi says if you want to win with violence, you will win with violence, but the violence will stay in the community after you win,” Amro once explained to an audience at NYU during a talk I attended. “Nonviolence strengthens civil society in the best way. That’s why we educate, why we convince the Palestinians about nonviolence.”

There was a time when Palestinians truly needed convincing, when violent resistance was common and had widespread support in the community. Between the years 2000 and 2004, Palestinian militants killed over 1,000 Israelis during an uprising known as the Second Intifada. Over 700 of those fatalities were civilians, many of them children who died when suicide bombers detonated themselves on buses, in cafés full of families and nightclubs full of kids; some 8,500 people were injured. That campaign of horrific violence opened a wound in Israeli society that is anything but healed fifteen years later: a thousand people in a country of just 7 million is a lot of people—the proportional equivalent of 50,000 Americans. Every Israeli knows someone who was affected by the violence.

Increasingly, though, Amro’s worldview is today prevailing among Palestinians, and in the occupied West Bank and Israel itself, violent attacks against Israelis, especially Israeli civilians, have dwindled. First, violent, mass uprisings gave way to “lone wolf” stabbing attacks by teenagers, which did not garner widespread support in Palestinian communities. And lately, even these incidents have more or less subsided.

Despite the overt militarism of Hamas and other groups in Gaza, there is a sense among the wider Palestinian public that violent resistance is no longer effective. This is true across the West Bank, and even in Gaza. Last year’s Great Return March was originally planned by its organizers to be a mass nonviolent protest, and Hamas itself adopted this line, at least rhetorically, when the organization moved to co-opt the march (there were, inevitably, also some militants among the protesters—and casualties).

“The Palestinian leadership, despite the fact that overall it has very little support, quite explicitly does not support violence,” Ami Ayalon, a former Knesset member in the Labor Party and former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, told me recently.

The data bears this out. Fewer Israelis have died from war or terror attacks during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure than any other Israeli Prime Minister. It’s fair to say that Israel is currently living through one of the least-violent periods in the country’s history (understandably, it doesn’t feel this way to the families and communities of the victims of violent attacks that do occur).

And when violence does erupt from the Gaza Strip, as it did last week when Hamas rockets killed three Israelis, a ceasefire with favorable conditions to Hamas quickly follows. “It sends the message: If you adopt a nonviolence position, if you’re the nice guy, you don’t get anything, but if you resort to violence, you are rewarded,” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the executive committee of the PLO, the official Palestinian representative body, told me over the phone.

That message is being sent in more ways than one. For example, you might think that a military occupation, which draws its justification from the need to protect its citizens, would relax somewhat in the face of fewer violent threats. And yet, the opposite seems to have happened. The past few years have seen a crackdown on nonviolent forms of resistance, including the arrest and detention of nonviolent activists and attempts to deport supporters of the boycott movement. Even those working to expose the human rights violations of the Palestinian leadership, such as Human Rights Watch’s Omar Shakir, have been targeted.

So it was that in June 2016 Amro was indicted on eighteen counts by the Israeli military. The charges, which go back to 2010, include obstructing a public servant, insulting a soldier (“the above Defendant insulted a soldier or took other actions which impinged on his dignity or status as a soldier”), incitement, resisting arrest, assaulting a soldier, and participation in an assembly without a permit.

It is not just the Israeli authorities that are prosecuting Amro. The Palestinian Authority, too, arrested him and charged him with breaching their draconian “Electronic Crimes Law” after he criticized the PA on social media. That trial is set to begin in two weeks.

Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images
Amro being conducted by Palestinian security forces officers from a Palestinian Authority court, which extended his detention for criticizing on social media the PA’s arrest of a journalist, West Bank, September 7, 2017

First, at the beginning of April, Amro took the witness stand in Israeli military court to testify in his own defense. I was there to try to understand what seemed to me like Israel’s attempt to criminalize legitimate nonviolent protest.

To attend Amro’s trial, I had to get permission from the Israel Defense Forces’ public relations department, which sent an officer to accompany me. Together, she and I entered the courtroom where Amro was tried.

It was a bare-bones affair: a caravan with a long, raised desk for the judge and plastic folding chairs in the back for relatives and others. The witness stand was a wooden lectern, the kind you might find in a university classroom or a synagogue. Amro, who has dark, close-set eyes, and an air of concentrated power, stood at the lectern and testified for seven hours.

Presiding over Amro’s case was Lt. Col. Menachem Lieberman, a tall man with thick silver hair, quick to smile or make a joke; for all the gravity of the proceedings, many times throughout the day, a jovial feel pervaded the courtroom thanks to Judge Lieberman’s repartee with Amro’s lawyer, the celebrated civil rights lawyer Gaby Lasky, and even with Amro himself.

Lieberman had also been the judge who presided over the high-profile trial of Ahed Tamimi, the then-sixteen-year-old Palestinian girl who became an international cause célèbre when she kicked and slapped an impassive Israeli soldier and was later arrested. Tamimi pled guilty to assault and incitement, and Lieberman sentenced her to eight months in prison, minus time served.

Judge Lieberman, the court reporter, the prosecutor, and the army spokesperson who accompanied me all wore military uniforms. But Judge Lieberman and the prosecutor, Major Ben Bar, had more than just their military garb in common. Both wore knitted yarmulkas, a signifier of the religious Zionist movement. Both were born in North America, in stark contrast to Amro, whose family has lived in Hebron for over ten generations. And it turned out that Lieberman and Bar had even more in common: they were related, through marriage—a fact that the judge disclosed to the courtroom at the end of that long day of testimony.

“Do you know what six degrees of separation are?” Judge Lieberman asked Amro, sounding more like someone’s cousin from New Jersey than an Israeli military judge. “When it comes to religious Zionists, it’s one degree of separation.”

This family reunion was no doubt less charming to Amro, who is viewed as a threat not just by the IDF but by the religious settlers who live in the territories. The ever-expanding presence in the West Bank of these settler communities, established under the protection of the IDF and sometimes illegally, is seen by many as the main barrier to any future Palestinian state and a negotiated peace deal. Throughout the course of his activism, Amro has had many altercations with the settlers of Hebron in particular, who are known—even by their allies—for their fanaticism.

Spend any time with Amro in Hebron and you will encounter them. They follow him around, hurling insults, calling him a son of a bitch and a terrorist, and pushing a camera in his face or even outright slapping him. All the while, soldiers in the vicinity do nothing. They can’t do anything; as Israeli citizens, the settlers do not fall under their jurisdiction. Amro, of course, does.

One of Amro’s chief antagonists is the Hebron settler leader Baruch Marzel, also US-born. I had seen Marzel the night before Amro’s trial when I went to a pre-election rally for the racist Jewish Power Party, the ideological inheritors of Rabbi Meir Kahane (or Kahana, in Hebrew). Before his assassination, Kahane advocated the ethnic cleansing of Arabs out of Israel and the criminalizing of intermarriage between Jews and Arabs. The party he founded was outlawed after one of his followers, Baruch Goldstein, murdered twenty-nine Palestinians at prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in 1994. Issa was born only a few hundred feet from the Mosque, and it is less than a mile from where he lives today.

Despite this background, the Jewish Power Party became a national player quite suddenly during the recent Israeli elections when Netanyahu, fearful of losing right-wing votes, arranged for the party to join forces with another right-wing party to support his re-election bid. The rally I attended was for Itamar Ben Gvir of Jewish Power, who famously keeps a framed photo of the mass-killer Goldstein on his wall, and Bezalel Smotrich of the Jewish Home Party; it was their two parties that merged for the sake of the election at Netanyahu’s behest. Israel’s Supreme Court barred another party member, Michael Ben Ari, from running in the same election because of his overtly racist views.

“They ask me, are you a student of Rav Kahana? I say, ‘Of course, of course!’” Ben Ari cried at the rally, before leading the crowd in chants of “Rabbi Kahana Lives!” He was followed by Marzel, who was introduced as “a very special person who worked with Rabbi Kahana, God should avenge his death, a man who all the Arabs of Hebron know that you don’t mess with him.”

Marzel lives just around the corner from Amro in the ancient, now fraught, Hebron neighborhood of Tel Rumeida, where Abraham the Patriarch is believed to have lived. There’s plenty of footage of Marzel attacking Palestinians on the cobbled stones of this hallowed ground. There’s also footage from 2013 of Marzel walking to the gate of Amro’s home and striking Amro in the face. Despite the video evidence of the attack, it was Amro who was arrested by the IDF when the army arrived on the scene.

Marzel has, in fact, been charged in Israeli civilian court for the attack, but he has refused to appear. And it’s been six years, seemingly without consequence for him.

And while Marzel has evaded judgment for his violent attack against Amro, in April Amro testified in Israeli military court about his nonviolent resistance. He spoke in English, with Lieberman’s permission, pausing every few sentences for Judge Lieberman to translate for the court reporter, who took down Amro’s testimony in Hebrew.

“I never committed or supported any kind of violence, and I will not,” Amro said. “I was arrested many times because I am under military law, and I have no rights like everybody else, especially the settlers in Hebron, who file false complaints about me. I do everything according to the law, without any kind of support for violence or incitement. But the occupation doesn’t like me for trying to defend my rights, my people’s rights, and my identity.”

This is not how the IDF views things. “The IDF respects the highest standard of free speech and public demonstration, while maintaining concern for public safety,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement issued to me in response to a list of questions. But many believe that nonviolent resistance presents a more potent long-term threat to Israel than any violence.

“Israel is not afraid of violence,” Ashrawi told me. “They immediately react with shelling and bombing. But when Palestinians use nonviolence, they don’t know how to respond, and they call it delegitimization.”

It’s not just Palestinians who view things this way. “You know what is the one thing that most terrifies the State of Israel? That people, without guns, would start to walk,” Ayalon, the former Shin Bet chief, told me. “Picture it: 100,000 Palestinians start walking towards Jerusalem. Walking—nothing else. What would the IDF do? Say they kill fifty, they kill a hundred, they kill three hundred. What would happen if they just kept walking?”

So great a threat does Palestinian nonviolence pose that Israel seems bent on erasing this type of activism completely, casting expressions of civil society as potential threats.

“Violence isn’t only violence,” Ayalon told me. “The IDF’s behavior is not only the result of the level of terrorism, but the result of the energy or public opinion for the potential level of violence that exists in every protest. In every nonviolent protest, there is the potential for violence.”

*

Israel has occupied the West Bank ever since it captured Jerusalem in 1967 at the end of a string of victories against Jordan during the Six Day War. Israel used to justify its continued military occupation on the grounds that it is necessary to safeguard the security of Israeli citizens. And certainly, there was a time when this was a compelling argument. As Ayalon reminded me, the Second Intifada began with popular protests in the West Bank. But the Second Intifada also explains why terrorist attacks against Israelis have been on the wane. The last time he was in New York, I asked Ayalon why the Second Intifada ended. Many credit the separation barrier that Israel built for ending the violence. But Ayalon mentioned another cause.

“If you ask me, first of all, the suffering of the Palestinian people,” he said. Later, he elaborated: “Anyone thirty-five and older remembers the Second Intifada. Over the course of three years, 3,500 Palestinians were killed. That’s the equivalent of 8,000 Israelis being killed.” In Israel, he went on, “1,200 were killed, most of them civilians, and we are still today suffering the trauma of that Intifada.”

Recent polling shows that just 35 percent of Palestinians support armed resistance against Israel. Perhaps for this reason, Israel doesn’t cloak its occupation in security terms anymore. “The security factor is disappearing in the Israeli debate,” Ayalon said. “It’s more and more an ideological factor.”

He’s not alone in this view, he believes. “Ninety percent of the senior members of the defense establishment—both past and present—don’t believe the occupation is a security factor,” Ayalon told me. “The occupation is not a security asset but a security burden. And it causes violence. Until we end the occupation, we will be less secure.”

This view is not reflected in Israeli government policy. Under Netanyahu’s decade-long rule, the occupation has become only more entrenched and more cruel. Far from seeking a negotiated solution, Netanyahu pledged just days before the last election to annex land from the West Bank occupied by Jewish settlements and to break with all precedent by establishing outposts of Israeli sovereignty.

If in places like the West Bank town of Ramallah, it’s possible periodically to forget the presence of the Israeli military, in areas where the settlements proliferate (known since the Oslo talks in the 1990s as “Area C”), the IDF’s presence is part and parcel of daily life, along with the military infrastructure required for the settlements’ “protection.” In Hebron, there are twenty-two checkpoints in one square kilometer, as Issa testified. And there is a street in their own city that Palestinians are completely barred from.

Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images
Amro arguing with an Israeli settler during a Palestinian protest against a government decision reinforcing settlers’ rights in Hebron, West Bank, September 18, 2017

The systematic dispossession of Palestinians of their rights leaves them with just a few options, Amro testified at Ofer: “To use violence against the oppression and be part of the problem; or to be silent and live as a second or a third class citizen without any rights, where his or her dignity will be destroyed or affected.” But there’s also a third option, Amro said—the one he has pursued: “I chose to be part of the solution by using nonviolent resistance and a human rights approach.”

“I studied many historical nonviolence cases in the world,” Amro testified, pausing so that Judge Lieberman could translate for the court reporter. “I’m very convinced about nonviolence and started convincing my society to use nonviolence. I started teaching the youth to use nonviolent resistance, their families, the women, and the main thing I started was in 2006 to give the Palestinian families video cameras to film the violence against them, to film the soldiers and the settlers violating Israeli law.”

It was this, Amro argued, that made him a target. “Giving the videos to the media, especially the Israeli media, and the Israeli police made me the main enemy to them,” Amro said.

The prosecutor did not see things this way. Some of his cross-examination of Amro focused on the charges of resisting arrest and pushing a soldier—claims Amro contested. The prosecution also accused Amro of breaking the law by “inciting” his fellow Palestinians by allegedly telling them to ignore a soldier’s orders. One charge of assault and another of willful damage to property were dropped after the accuser failed to show up to testify on multiple occasions (and video footage contradicted the charge). The remainder of the charges against Amro describe a series of episodes all related to nonviolent protests and other forms of community activism.

For the most part, the prosecutor did not contest Amro’s claim to being nonviolent. In fact, there was little the prosecution and the defense didn’t agree on. Most of the cross-examination hinged not on whether Amro did or didn’t do certain things, but on whether or not he had a right to do them. For example, Amro was accused of participating “in a march, assembly or vigil without a permit.” He, in turn, did not contest that he attended the protest. He contested the very idea that he should not be allowed to exercise his right to general assembly.

“According to international law, I am allowed as a Palestinian to express my opinion, to practice my right to general assembly, and to participate in peaceful activities,” he said. “And I think Israeli law must follow international law according to my education.”

“Which international law?” Judge Lieberman asked.

“The Geneva Convention,” Amro said.

“You have a right to gather at a protest of any amount of people?” Lieberman asked.

“We can gather without any violence,” Amro said.

“They said you were inciting,” Lieberman said.

“I don’t incite,” Amro said. “And they misuse that term. I’m a person who believes in nonviolence.”

Later, the prosecutor asked if Amro had gotten approval for a protest.

“No,”Amro said. “But there is no procedure to get approval for a protest.”

The prosecutor expressed incredulity that Amro advises families in Hebron about the law, but doesn’t know how to get approval for a protest.

“I will invite you for dinner in my house if you get approval for any protest of Palestinians,” Amro said.

“For any of the protests you participated in, did you receive approval?”

“There is no mechanism to check,” Amro answered.

At another point, the occupation itself appeared to be on trial. “When you founded Youth Against Settlements, was the idea against all settlements, including legal settlements?” The prosecutor asked Amro.

“Excuse me, I’m sorry: there are no legal settlements!” Amro’s lawyer Lasky intervened.

“Since we’re already talking about it, Ms. Lasky,” said Lieberman, who lives in a settlement, reverting to Hebrew, “explain to me on what grounds you say there aren’t legal settlements?” And the proceedings paused while they debated the matter.

Later, the prosecutor moved on, peppering Amro with a series of questions about things Amro allegedly said to soldiers or border police officers. “You didn’t yell at the border police?” “Why did you yell at the police officers?” “Did you say he doesn’t have the authority to arrest you?” “Did you tell the police officer to shut up?” “You didn’t yell in the police station?” “Did you insult the police officer?” “During the 2016 protest, did you yell in the protest? Did you chant slogans?”

It was shocking, as an American brought up on assumptions of a bedrock First Amendment right to free speech, to follow a line of questioning in a criminal proceeding that seemed to rest not on Amro’s actions, but on the content of things he had allegedly said, and even the tone or volume in which he’d said them.

“There are different levels of incitement,” the IDF wrote in their statement. “One example of incitement can be inciting physically violent behavior, but incitement can be more broadly defined as the urging of any unlawful behavior. Anyone who urges someone to disobey a law is himself endangering the public’s security.” 

But my American distance from the proceedings evaporated when the court resumed its hearing after an adjournment for lunch. A group of foreign dignitaries from different countries had attended the trial during the morning session, and when they didn’t come back after lunch, the judge wished to know who remained in his courtroom. Calling across the courtroom, the judge asked that the remaining visitors identify themselves.

“I’m Batya Ungar-Sargon. I’m a journalist from America,” I offered.

“Batya what?” Judge Lieberman asked.

“Ungar-Sargon.”

He nodded.

“You know we’re related,” he asked, switching to English. He then outlined the family tree that connected us (Lieberman is married to my mother’s first cousin).

And before the court, he invited me to a memorial service that evening for my great aunt, who’d recently passed away. He told me he’d be happy to give me a lift there; it was at another cousin’s home in Jerusalem.

It was jarring to suddenly find myself related, literally, to the state apparatus that was seeking to imprison a human rights defender whose work I admired so much. More than jarring: I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me. (When I spoke to Issa later, he was more forgiving. “I distinguish between brothers and sisters,” he told me, with a shrug. “I have good friends whose brothers are settlers.”)

But of course, I was related to these proceedings. Even before discovering that I was literally related to Judge Lieberman, there were two roads in to that courtroom: one for people like me, another for people like Amro. As a Jew, I was never not related to the court proceedings; they were always being done in my name. Even we Jews who oppose Israel’s occupation—and the majority of American Jews do—cannot erase the fact that, at any moment in time, we can choose to move to Israel and become citizens, while millions of people who already live under Israeli rule cannot.

And whether or not I live in Israel, the same army that harassed, arrested, and tried Amro, the army whose job it is to enforce a situation in which he is unequal before the law, this is also my army. It is the army of the Jewish people, and its mission is to prevent any renewed threat of historic atrocities such as my family faced, so that we will never have to face them again. Nothing I believe or do can change this inexorable fact.

On another occasion, after visiting Issa in Hebron, I stood waiting alone on a dark, deserted street for a bus that never came (the bus stop is on a street Issa is forbidden from walking down). A soldier pulled up beside me in a military jeep and told me to get in, moving his rifle from the passenger seat to the back, next to an empty, multicolored child’s carseat. He drove me to another bus stop in a nearby adjacent settlement where he said there were more buses; we ended up sitting in his jeep for an hour, talking politics as bus after bus went by, one after another.

“You think I like Baruch Marzel?” He said, shaking his head. “It’s complicated here. When the Palestinian kids throw stones, I tell my soldiers they aren’t allowed to shoot. So who is the violent one?”

I knew that the gun lying in the back of the jeep would never be trained on me. It was about as much a threat to my life as the kid’s carseat beside it.

*

In a democratic society, a court draws its legitimacy from the government that appoints it, which in turns draws its legitimacy from the body politic that elects the government. In other words, a court is authorized to exercise state power by the voters whose due process rights the court protects. This is the bargain struck by a democratic society between its citizens and its elected representatives: govern us justly and we will vote for you; abuse us, and we’ll vote you out. This is the only true justification for all forms of state power in a democracy.

But the Palestinians who are tried at Ofer appear in front of a court that has been appointed by a government they did not vote for; they have no voting rights in Israel. And the IDF’s military court tries them for alleged crimes against a society in which they do not live. Only crimes committed by Palestinians against Jews—who do have the right to vote—are tried at Ofer. Crimes committed by Palestinians against other Palestinians are tried in the Palestinian Authority’s courts, while crimes committed by Jews against Palestinians are generally tried in Israeli civilian. If a Palestinian and a Jew get into a fight in the West Bank that results in both being charged, then they will be sent to two separate courts—one military, the other civilian.

“Within a civilian court of a democracy, the courts perceive themselves as in the middle between human rights or the rights of citizens and the public interest,” explained Yuval Shany, a professor of international law and the first Israeli to chair the United Nations Human Rights Committee. “I’m not sure that the military courts in the occupied territory of the West Bank have this perception. They see themselves mostly as a way of protecting the security interest within the constraints of the legal process.”

This is not to say that there is no legitimacy to military courts. International law does recognize their jurisdiction in a situation in which the occupier is exercising judicial authority in lieu of a democratically elected government. But this exception to the norm is allowed only as a temporary measure, such as applied during the US occupation of West Germany for a period after the end of World War II. When an occupation itself becomes the norm, this can call into question the legitimacy under international law of all of its institutions, including its military courts.

“It seems as if the Israeli government is moving away from actually trying to resolve the situation within the framework of international law,” Shany added, “and I think this puts into question the legitimacy of the authority which is being exercised.”

On our drive to my great-aunt’s memorial service, Judge Lieberman wouldn’t answer any questions about such issues, or Amro’s case, or how he justifies judging Palestinians who have far fewer rights than he has, or what incitement to nonviolence meant. He wasn’t authorized to speak to a journalist.

“The IDF sees Issa Amro as innocent [until proven otherwise],” an IDF spokesperson wrote in a statement in response to my questions. “This will not change until the end of the trial. Any person or organization acting under the assumption that Issa Amro will be found guilty does so in direct contradiction of the values of a democratic state.” As for how putting a person on trial who doesn’t have the right to vote is consistent with the values of a democratic state, the IDF didn’t say.

But another judge who works with Lieberman granted me an interview on the condition of anonymity. And he painted a complex picture of his colleague, my cousin.

Most of the judges in Israel’s military courts have spent their entire careers there, Lieberman’s colleague explained. Many are put through law school by the army, in a program called “Atuda.” Not Judge Lieberman.

“Menachem is one of the rare cases of someone who served in the army and then left the army and came back later to be a judge,” this other judge explained. It’s unusual, he said. “He’s talented. He’s an intelligent guy. He could work his life comfortably out of the army. But he chose to go there because he thought it was important to be a judge in the army in the territories.”

This poses a question, he explained, especially for someone who lives in a settlement, as Lieberman does.

“Is this person coming to the army to be an ideological right-winger and hate the Arabs and want to hurt them and impose harsh punishments on them? Or is he really a person who believes in the rule of law and believes he can contribute to the rule of law in the territories in a just way? I think it is safe to say that the latter is true,” the military judge said. “That even though he’s religious and lives in the [settlements], and his wife is an active conservative, he is really a person who believes in human rights and in the rule of law, in the deepest sense.”

Lieberman, I learned, was active in an initiative that military judges themselves had come up with to limit the powers of the court, and in particular to introduce more reasonable regulations in the juvenile courts (it is estimated that Israel arrests around 800 Palestinian children every year). And the military judges, Lieberman included, voted to limit their own power.

“Philosophically, of course, it’s delegitimized by the fact that others go to civilian court,” the judge said. “But practically, we take it very seriously. What’s the alternative? To leave everything to [the Jewish Power politician] Ben Gvir?

“You have to remember, the law in the territories is harsh,” he went on. “But within these boundaries, you can apply it in a harsh way or a liberal way—and I think [Lieberman] applies it more liberally.”

Strangely enough, I heard an echo of this perception when, a few days later, I interviewed Ahed Tamimi, the teenage activist whom Lieberman had sentenced to eight months. She made clear that she did not regard the system as legitimate. “I consider this entire court to be theater for the media, to show that they are holding trials for us,” she told me. “No matter who the judge is, in the end, I as a civilian am being tried in a military court.” Yet, she said, she had been pleasantly surprised that Lieberman gave her only eight months: “Honestly, I was glad—because until the last day of the trial, the prosecution was demanding four years.”

Unlike Amro, Tamimi is not committed to nonviolence, nor to distinguishing between Israeli civilians and the military. “It’s their part to join our struggle, to show the world that a Jew is different from a Zionist,” she said. “It’s not my job to clarify that to the world. Everything is important, even the nonviolent resistance, but it’s not our role to say, this one is a civilian, this one is a militant.

“In the end, we see that we’re under occupation, and we see that they took our land and home. Ultimately, if a person accepts being part of the occupation, then he’s no different than them.”

These are shocking words. And yet, in charging Amro with incitement, a category usually reserved for violence, Israel itself is failing to distinguish between nonviolent and violent resistance to its violent occupation. And in trying a civilian in a military court, it was treating a Gandhian activist as a militant, failing to distinguish between civilian and military — just as Ahed Tamimi refused to do.

This is not to say that within the military court system, Amro was denied due process. Indeed, Israel’s military law grants him more freedom of speech than he would receive from the Palestinian Authority’s justice system. (“The PA made mistakes,” Ashrawi told me. “They did violate free speech, and we are following up. But you can’t compare it with Israel. There’s an occupation. I do not justify any violations, but they are not the same at all.”)

But this “due process” exists within and is inseparable from the occupation. And the very intimacy of the occupation as it manifests in Hebron—hardline Israeli settlers living cheek-by-jowl with the city’s Palestinian residents—was mirrored by the strange revelations of kinship relations uncovered in Judge Lieberman’s courtroom. Later, at my great-aunt’s memorial service, another relative told me that Lieberman was related not only to the prosecutor and to me, but also to Baruch Marzel himself. (Lieberman would not confirm this, since he was not authorized to speak to me, but his colleague explained that Israel’s Supreme Court is lax on judicial recusal, because in such a tiny country, it is so often the case that people are related to one another.)

For all the awkwardness I felt about that, this same intimacy at moments also gave me hope. At one point during the trial, the prosecutor demanded to know whether Amro respected the authority of the Israeli military.

“Do you respect the authority of this court?” he asked. “Do you think this will be a legal proceeding?”

Lasky objected, but she needn’t have.

“I also don’t want an answer,” Judge Lieberman interrupted quickly in Hebrew. “It’s not interesting, his answer. With all due respect, I respect him. I don’t need him to respect me. It’s not important to me,” Lieberman said again.

He turned back to Amro and switched back to English. “Maybe sitting over a cup of coffee, you can tell me what you think about it, but you don’t have to say it here.”

“I will take you on a tour of Hebron,” Amro said. “We can discuss all of that.”

“I’ll come with my cousin,” Lieberman said, and smiled.

*

Most Israelis I know don’t want to be involved in denying the rights of others or ruling over a population without equal rights. The truth is, though, that they don’t really see it—their government hides it from them behind a huge concrete wall that separates the West Bank from the rest of Israel, and Israelis aren’t allowed into much of the West Bank where Palestinians live. Big red signs warn them of the danger to their lives at the checkpoints that divide Israel proper from the Palestinian territories.  

With the occupation hidden from view, many Israelis bemoan—in good faith, I believe—the lack of a “partner for peace” on the Palestinian side. Held captive by their politicians’ rhetoric and their own reasonable fears about security, what they don’t see is how deeply Israel’s military apparatus is invested in suppressing the very development of a Palestinian civil society that might produce such a partner.

The Second Intifada ended only fifteen years ago. It’s not difficult to understand, then, why the Israeli military would remain on high alert for signs of another uprising. But in so doing, it has become incapable of interpreting correctly what’s happening in Palestinian politics. When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Or, as Ayalon put it, “The measure of violence is, to a certain degree, the fear of the Israeli security apparatus for things that might happen.”

Israel’s military may indeed believe that any form of Palestinian organizing will ultimately lead to violent resistance. But violence is not the natural outgrowth of civil society; it is, in fact, its opposite.

In a 1969 essay for the Review titled “Reflections on Violence,” the political theorist Hannah Arendt made a distinction between power and violence. She argued that power is the strength that accumulates from numbers, the rule of the many over the few, whereas violence is what happens when the few use instruments to overcome the many. Amro once said that nonviolence strengthens civil society. Arendt took this logic one step further: nonviolence is civil society.

The BDS movement might offend some of us as Jews. But it, too, is a form of nonviolent resistance, and its example has become one of the main explanations for the shift from violent resistance to nonviolent tactics in Palestinian society. That also makes the movement an organizing principle of Palestinian civil society—which explains why Israel is so invested in criminalizing it.

“I think Israel is afraid of nonviolent activists,” Gaby Lasky told me, in April. “Israel knows—thank God—how to fight terrorism and violence. But if a very large number of nonviolent demonstrators would have huge marches like they had in India at the time of Gandhi, I don’t know how Israel would be able to stop that. And then, maybe, it would be a turning point in the occupation.”