Abdullah Abu Rahma has been arrested by Israeli soldiers eight times in the last 15 years, spending weeks or months in prison and paying tens of thousands of dollars in fines for organizing protests.
He’s among a growing number of Palestinians who have embraced non-violent means of protesting Israel’s military rule and expanding settlements, and who are increasingly finding those avenues of dissent blocked.
Israel says the Palestinians should address their grievances in peace talks. But negotiations ground to a halt more than a decade ago, and the current government’s position on core issues is rejected by the Palestinians and most of the international community.
More than 50 years after occupying the West Bank, Israel is still systematically denying Palestinians civil rights, including the right to gather, Human Rights Watch said in a report released last month. Israel has also stepped up its campaign against the Palestinian-led international boycott movement, and the United States and other countries have adopted legislation to suppress it.
Israel has also come down hard on Palestinian attempts to seek redress at the International Criminal Court. Last month, after a five-year preliminary investigation, the court said it was ready to open a full investigation pending a ruling on territorial jurisdiction. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the court’s decision “pure anti-Semitism.”
Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch, said Israel has “all but declared Palestinian opposition to the systematic discrimination they face illegitimate.” Shakir himself was deported from Israel in November over his alleged support for the boycott movement.
If it succeeds in banning forms of peaceful advocacy, he says, Israel will have “effectively left Palestinians no choice but submission to a regime of systematic repression, or violence.”
For decades, the Palestinians were branded terrorists because of their armed struggle against Israel, which included suicide bombings and other attacks on civilians. At the height of the Second Intifada, the violent uprising in the early 2000s, and for years afterward, observers wondered why there was no “Palestinian Gandhi.”
One candidate for such a title might be Abu Rahma, who for several years organized weekly protests outside his West Bank village of Bilin against Israel’s controversial separation barrier. Israel says the barrier is needed for security, but would have cut off village residents from their land. The protesters eventually forced authorities to reroute the barrier following a court order.
The protests often saw Palestinian youths hurl rocks at Israeli security forces, who responded with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets. But Abu Rahma says he never threw stones and told others not to do so, partly out of concern they would hurt other protesters.
That didn’t keep him from being arrested.
Over the years he was charged with entering a closed military zone — referring to land outside the village — and hindering the work of soldiers, who were overseeing the construction of the fence.
“I don’t go to them, they come to us,” he said.
In 2009 he was charged with stockpiling weapons after he collected spent tear gas canisters fired by Israeli soldiers and put them on display. He later served a 16-month prison term after a military court convicted him of incitement and participation in illegal protests.
“There have been various, multiple charges of this kind, but not once have they accused me of striking a soldier or throwing a stone,” he told The Associated Press. In 2009, he was acquitted on the weapons possession charge and a charge of throwing stones.
Issa Amro, another prominent activist who has organized protests against Israeli settlements in the West Bank city of Hebron, faces 16 charges, including calling for disobedience and disrupting Israeli life — the lives of settlers.
He says he has been detained on 10 occasions this year alone, usually after being beaten by settlers.
“The soldiers never did anything to stop the attackers, but they arrested me every time a settler said I attacked him,” he said. As a Palestinian, he is governed by Israeli military law, while the Jewish settlers in Hebron enjoy full rights as Israeli citizens.
“Israeli authorities ban any political expression in the Palestinian territories,” Amro said. “They want us basically to accept the occupation, the discrimination, the land grab, the restrictions, and not to speak up against it.”
Human Rights Watch said Israel relies on sweeping military orders, many of which date back to the 1967 Mideast war, when it seized the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza, territories the Palestinians want for their future state.
Civilians can be jailed for up to 10 years for attending political gatherings of more than 10 people or for displaying flags or political symbols without army approval, Human Rights Watch said. Military orders ban 411 organizations, including every major political movement, it added.
“After 52 years, Israel’s sweeping restrictions of the basic rights of Palestinians can no longer be justified by the exigencies of military occupation,” Shakir said. “Palestinians are entitled at minimum to the same rights Israel provides its own citizens.”
In response to questions about the Human Rights Watch report and the restrictions on protests, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused the Palestinian leadership of seeking to “attack Israel in the international arena” rather than trying to end the conflict through negotiations.
Peace talks broke down after Netanyahu was elected in 2009. In September, he vowed to annex large parts of the West Bank, a move that would almost certainly extinguish any remaining hope of creating a Palestinian state.
The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Islamic militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza, have also cracked down on dissent in recent years. The PA has detained hundreds of people, including Amro, who was jailed for a week in 2017 over a Facebook post. Hamas violently dispersed protests last March, arresting dozens of people.
In addition to protesting, many Palestinians have also rallied behind the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, a nonviolent campaign that claims to be modeled on the struggle against South African Apartheid.
The campaign has sparked a major backlash by Israeli authorities, who say its true aim is to delegitimize the state and eventually wipe it off the map.
BDS endorses the Palestinian claim of a right of return for the descendants of refugees who fled or were driven out of Israel in the 1948 war that attended its creation. If fully realized, that would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish-majority state. Critics have also seized on statements from prominent BDS supporters to brand it as anti-Semitic, something organizers vehemently deny.
A 2017 law bars entry to foreigners who have called for economic boycotts of Israel or its settlements. Israel invoked the law when it deported Shakir and when it refused entry to U.S. congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib earlier this year.
In May, German lawmakers passed a resolution that denounced the boycott movement and described its methods as anti-Semitic. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution opposing the boycott movement in July.
At least 25 U.S. states have enacted laws aimed at suppressing the BDS movement, including Texas, which passed a law forcing state contractors to sign a pledge that they do not support the campaign. A federal judge blocked enforcement of the law in April, saying boycotts are a form of protected free speech.
Gerald Steinberg, who heads a pro-Israel group called NGO Monitor that campaigns against BDS, said its “demonization paints Israelis as blood-thirsty war criminals, land-thieves and child killers.”
“These accusations contribute to or are used to justify attacks against students and speakers on university campuses, harassment in other venues and in some cases, violent terror,” he said.
Abu Rahma and other activists reject such characterizations, saying their struggle is not against Israelis but against the occupation.
“I see how the occupation is an obstacle to everything,” he said. “The path that I am on, I have to continue. I have to struggle. It’s not easy.”