Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength and Solidarity. I’m Akwe Amosu, delighted to be back after a three month break and excited to be starting a fourth season of Strength & Solidarity If you’ve just found us, welcome… and if you’re a long-standing listener thanks for coming back to dive with us into deep conversations about the tools, tactics and strategies being used by human rights activists around the world.
And to kick things off, a Palestinian activist defending his community from Israeli settler and military violence – and training a new generation in non-violent tactics
And in the Coda, a Colombian human rights leader explains why she just has to dance Salsa
(Actuality of Issa Amro addressing a crowd in Hebron: “My first message to you that we will not give up. We will stay strong, firm against occupation and against apartheid. Full equality, justice and freedom will be for all. Whatever they do, they will not make us silent, and they will not suppress our voices.”)
AA: That’s the voice of Issa Amro, Palestinian activist and organizer, addressing a group of Israeli and internationals visitors who have come to the city of Hebron to show solidarity with the Palestinian community that is experiencing daily harassment and violence Issa was born in 1980 in Hebron on the West Bank, into a Palestinian family that discouraged politics and held up education as the priority. But growing up right next to a new Israeli armed settlement in the middle of his city, he saw more and more military checkpoints. When he was a young teenager, 29 members of his community were murdered in the 1994 Ibrahimi Mosque massacre. Subsequent years saw intensifying oppression of Palestinian communities, provoking waves of political protest in response. Then in 2003, when Issa was close to graduating, the Israeli military ordered his university permanently closed in response to the second Intifada. Shocked and then galvanized by what he considered a gross injustice, Issa went to his computer and started searching for information on how one could fight back. He discovered Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and the South African anti-apartheid struggle, and decided to urge his fellow students to use non-violent protest to try and get their university back. He had no history as an activist, so I was curious to know, when I sat down with him in September, how they reacted.
AA: Welcome Issa
Issa Amro: Welcome.
AA: With the university suddenly shuttered when you were just about to graduate, you and other students were disappointed and angry and you urged them to protest even though you had no experience as an activist. What can you recall about your conversation with your fellow students?
IA: You know, many of them said, uh, Issa, what was taken by power should come back by power. And I told them, okay, nonviolence resistance is power and let’s use it as a tactic. For me, it was a tactic, you know, one of the tactics I wanted to use. And then I read about the Palestinian resistance in the past. And I found the longest strike in history was in Palestine. So our resistance history was very rich of non-violence resistance, but, you know, we were in the time of no media, no social media, no communication, no real campaigning, but people were doing it naturally, you know. So I studied the Palestinian resistance movement from the thirties. And I started talking to the students, listen, guys, you know, we did this in the eighties. We’re –
AA: We’re part of a tradition.
IA: Yes. You know, let’s try to do it again. So we formed a committee and we, you know, distributed the tasks and we accepted the – you know, it’s new for us, the power dynamic, the decision-making, you know, it was the first time for me to understand, you know, consensus, that we should take consensus – how we do it, you know, it was very new for me. And I’m a electrical engineering student, you know what it means, I’m, you know,
AA: , you had not been reading political texts.
IA: Yes, exactly! I was just between, uh, calculus and physics and, uh, you know, only very scientific, heavy books. Then I went to read political tactics and I was, uh, moved by Gene Sharp – tactics and instrument to dismantle dictatorships, you know,
AA: I want to get, in a few minutes, to how you ended up using this experience for the young people coming up after you, but just give a sense of what happened from then on.
IA: I convinced the majority of the students to join the movement to reopen the university. And we managed to reopen the university, in spite that many people were telling us it’s impossible mission. So I graduated as an engineer and as an activist on the same time. So I got two skills. And then I, I started, working to bring solidarity groups to Hebron and work against the apartheid wall around Hebron district. Then I discovered that I should target my own people, to recruit them and bring them into a nonviolence resistance because, by time, you know, I moved from using nonviolence resistance as a tactic to believe in it as a strategy. That was a big move.
AA: What is the distinctive change that that refers to?
IA: I practiced nonviolence resistance and I won, and victories give you more inspiration to continue and do more work. And even, you know, seeing how you’re really making a huge difference by using non-violence resistance, that give you more power to convince other people. I saw how the occupation was not able to destroy you because you are using nonviolence resistance, and how I managed to bring attention and make the occupation costly, to increase our voice, because, as Palestinians, we suffer a lot from shutting off our voices, especially in the grassroot level – the Palestinian community who are really suffering the occupation, their voice doesn’t exist. And I, I achieved a lot on the ground and working with the victims. Then, you know, we started documenting the human rights violations, using video cameras and giving out cameras to the families, to the women, to the kids, you know, engaging the community and make it as a community resistance and the community participation and engagement – that made a real influence on me personally, too, that wow, it’s working and the community is accepting that and engaging and, and really they’re believing in it. And you see a Palestinian woman reacting to settler violence by videotaping that settler who’s attacking her. And she feels that, okay, I have a power now in my hand I can use against the occupation and against apartheid. So the families saw their videos on media, saw their documentation in the Israeli courts against settlers who attack usually because we, as Palestinians, we are under the Israeli military law, which means we are guilty till we are proven innocent. So the camera gave us protection, and give us visibility, you know, I say that the video camera in Palestine became one of the most trustful witness and the best non-violence tool, you know, against occupation and against apartheid. So I decided to target the youth.
AA: Okay. So How old are you at that point?
IA: I, I started my activism, uh, two thousand and three, which means that I was 23 years old and I became a real leader in my community 2007.
AA: So you were still young as you thought about this idea of focusing specifically on mobilizing young people.
IA: Yes, because I believe in youth power, I believe in youth energy, I believe that people start framing their lifestyle from this age. Because I missed the opportunity to learn when I was a child, when I was very young, 14 and 15, tactics and strategies of how I can fight the Israeli occupation in a way that it affects the occupation more than it affects me, and where my parents may accept me to do too. And this is what I did. I started training young activists to speak in behalf of Palestinians and even, you know, organizing a campaign to send them out.
AA: What, what did that mean in practice?
IA: Training? You know, first, I usually encourage the youth to take care of their education. Education is basic for any future leader. Then I try to increase their knowledge by cases studies about the occupation and about resistance. Then we go to the field and we experience what we are talking about. We practice, for example, filming Israeli soldiers invading Palestinian homes. I take the youth to go out with me, I start filming and give them what they can do, how they protect themselves. I call it, you know, training by practice, you know, practice-oriented training that you give a little bit of background, then you go down to the field to do the training and it’s working. Legal training about their rights in the military law, legal training according to the international law, media training, presentation skills training, uh, storytelling training, UN language training, diplomacy training, you know, how to talk, what to discuss, where to focus, where not to focus, what to highlight, what not to highlight, how to have a very, you know, deep credibility. Because credibility is really a big deal. Training about how to learn. How to be informed. How to transfer your anger, you know, from negative to a positive reaction. That was one of the best because youth, usually they get heated up quickly. So we did some kind of, uh, we call it role play because before I send them to the field, I, I wanted to protect them from their reaction. Because usually the army, the settlers, they try to provoke, those Palestinians by saying bad things about their religion, about themselves, about their parents. So you need to really give them-
AA: But it also sounds like you’re trying to give them a way to channel the energy into a creative response.
IA: Exactly. Yeah. This is something very important, you know, I don’t send anybody to the field before they take this kind of training and I am sure that they know how to transform the energy, the negative energy they get, to a positive, energy and, positive reaction. And then I open their eyes that, uh, the human being is the most important asset. And, uh, they should believe in nonviolence resistance and only nonviolence resistance. And, they studied the anti-apartheid movement. We have a lot of videos and films to show them, they studied the American civil rights movement. They know about Gandhi… So they know about, and, and I started taking them to other communities, even outside the city, you know, to really go around.
AA: So by now, are we talking about an organization? Because – Youth Against Settlements, when does that get formed? Is that the vehicle through which this is happening?
IA: No, we refuse to be an organization. We wanted to stay as a small movement, as a small group who is influencing everybody, but we had our own structure and our own, uh, principles, our own charter, our own commitments in the group, We wanted to keep it, voluntary-based, with different types of campaigns and something else, very important: we usually discuss deeply what each activist can do and what each activist is willing to do. So you have some young activists who are fearless and they want to be in the front line, they really don’t evaluate the hazards. And you have other activists who are hesitant, and to bring them together, you need a lot of training, a lot of discussion, a lot of social activities. You know, we do a lot of social activities together and we make the group as a family, you know,
AA: So there’s a strong bond among them.
IA: Exactly. and especially that we are a resistance group and we know that there is no action without a reaction, so you have to be ready. And we built our own leadership to really protect ourselves and protect each other. So one leader is visible and, you know, other leaders are behind who are willing to step up anytime someone else need to step down, or is targeted. Uh, and, and the youth reacted in a very positive way. Uh, I can say that we were very successful in the society and the community. We are talking about the biggest city in West Bank, Hebron, with 800,000 Palestinians living in the district, and our group managed to reach many, many communities all over the world. We reached communities who, uh, were reached for the first time, and our youth managed to present the Palestinian cause in an amazing way.
AA: So how many years has this been going on and how many people do you think have come through this process?
IA: Uh, we started 2007, we became very effective, 2008 and 2009. And then, each year we do evaluation, with a long-term plan with, a short term plans. And we do review, we do some kind of assessment to see what we can do. First of all, we, we try to defend our land because we are under real continuous ethnic cleansing. We are under continuous stealing of our land and our identity. So we do a lot of defense and a lot of protection. We do a lot of media and social media. We do documentation, we do tours, we do a lot of advocacy. We do a lot of legal work. We do community activities – to engage the community together, to do certain maintenance, activities we became the main enemy of the occupation because of this.
AA: So I assume that means that these young people are the targets of violence. They experience directly the consequences of confronting the army. How do you, and they deal with that?
IA: Unfortunately, the occupation is really targeting nonviolence resistance in Palestine and especially youth. And it’s very costly to confront the occupation, even if you confront the occupation peacefully, there is no difference between nonviolence resistance and armed resistance – the Israeli army, and the Israeli military system made it illegal for both. So it’s not allowed for us to use nonviolence resistance. So many activists paid high price – to be blacklisted, detained, arrested, smeared, uh, their families being attacked, their houses being attacked by the Israeli soldiers and Israeli settlers. But, if you really build your group with, uh, you know, transparency and with sharing knowledge and experience and, mutual trust and respect, you really make a real leaders group.
AA: So, but you you’re saying fear is not a factor for them in that case?
IA: Always fear exist. Humans, they have fear, nobody doesn’t have fear, but, uh, they were trained and they have the experience to deal with it and to go over it and, uh, not make it an obstacle for their own activities and their goals. 2019, our group were chosen in one of the global activist newspaper as the change makers of 2019. That kind of activist who are really always, uh, creative and flexible and, innovative and motivated to go on and on. And what we did, for example, we share leadership. So we started the steering committee, you know, leadership steering committee, with rotation. Each leader stays in power for six months and they evaluate his or her leadership. And then the other one come in and he should not do the same mistakes as the previous one. And they do it since 2018. We do this style of leadership, that steering committee leadership that, uh, they all decide together but there is a leader who is really accountable by the steering committee members and the steering committee is chosen by other activists. And the other activists have the opportunity after two years, one year, to join, and if they’re willing to join, and usually we push them to be in the steering committee because it’s a high commitment and a big responsibility. And each one of the leaders are, uh, asked to bring a new activist to the group and start training them, giving them all the tools and the skills to lead and to be independent leader from other leader, in a company with the old leaders, you know, as me, I stay with them all the time, even though sometimes I don’t decide for them, but me and other activists who are elder, we work together, we do everything together. So the experienced leaders, they work, you know, with, the new, fresh leaders to really give them confidence, you know, you see them are confident and something else, you stay in touch with them. So they have the courage to do things and they know that if they need something, if they do mistakes, they have someone close to them and ready to do a correction or give help.
AA: I’m trying to understand the identity of the group. Is it nameless and loose and amorphous, or do you have an organizational frame so that people can say, yes, I’m a member of whatever it is, how do you think about this question of organization?
IA: we started with Youth Against Settlements in Hebron, and we spread out West Bank with other organizations, but, uh, we found out the name is attacked by the Israeli army. And sometimes by the Palestinian Authority, and we, had a strategy to keep Youth Against Settlements’ you know, structure, but to have another structure underneath, underneath with other names, which
AA: which Is not labeled.
IA: Exactly. And nobody even knows who is the decision-maker, or what are the resources and who is doing what – this kind of, I call it ‘grey’ leadership and structure. In the same time, we know the structure, you have to have a structure known, uh, but you should keep it away from infiltrators. Because they may send someone to study you, to understand you, what you do, what you don’t do. This is something really important to have, and the new recruits, you know, we bring them to long procedures to reach the leadership skills and decision-making – one year, two years – because we want to understand the motivation of that person. The moment they are really equipped with everything we want
AA: and trusted
IA: and trusted, they become equal leader with an elder that quickly, but with a process, you know, it’s not, uh, you know, uh, anyone can come and join and we usually choose and we sometimes try to organize campaigns and we are not visible that we are the organizers. Our activists are the best trained, you can say, the best informed – how to lead, how to organize, how to campaign, how to do media, how to do social media, but they don’t want to, to be the visible leaders. And, and we led many very important campaigns in Palestine with thousands of attendees, we don’t try to own them. This something very important. Okay. We, we don’t try to own their, their skills, no, in the contrary, we make it open for them to use their skills wherever they want. And if they want to move from our group to another group, we discuss that and even we share resources, uh, because we became as a family, it’s about bringing people to the family and bringing people to share the resources we have.
AA: How do you think the wider community that is not organized, views this work? Is it sort of below the radar, they don’t notice it, or are they very well aware that this is going on, that this process of building an organized community of activists is going on and they respect that? Or is there anxiety that they don’t really know what’s happening because you can’t afford to be open and transparent about everything that you’re doing. So how, what’s the general perspective?
IA: when you work against occupation and against the Palestinian Authority’s human rights violations, you became the target. So they try to smear you. They try to destroy your image among your own people. And it’s really a big deal to, uh, stay in touch with your own people, to defend yourself, defend your image, defend your motivations and your goals. But, by networking and one-to-one meetings, big meetings, social activities, you stay informing people what you do, but as people who are resisting occupation, you can’t share everything and you can’t share your power even, and your connections and your networks and your supporters all the time. That sometimes, make some people who are suspicious of your power, you know, because, when we are attacked by the PA, for example,
AA: the Palestinian Authority
IA: Palestinian Authority’s security forces, especially, you know, the power of the group to defend someone attacked is really huge. So the people say, “who are they? How come they are really that –you know, but the main power is our passion, uh, dedication and unity in the group and the networking we do with other human rights organizations. So when I was arrested by the Palestinian Authority, they wanted to know this – our networks, our strategies, our tactics, uh, our partners. They wanted to know how we can, you can say shield, uh, uh, in the group.
AA: People who don’t know much about Palestine may be confused by you saying that the Palestinian Authority, is targeting you or has targeted you. Can you just say something about the, the political dynamics between a community of activists like yours and the formal authority in, Palestine.
IA: As every revolution in the world, and in the past, you know, we suffer from corruption in our leadership. We suffer from, dictatorship in our leadership as well. And we suffer from elders, not giving opportunity to the young generation to participate in taking decisions. So we didn’t have any presidency elections since almost 17 years. We didn’t have election for the Palestinian Legislative Council since very, very long time. Many political parties didn’t have any election. PLO, Palestinian liberation organization, didn’t have any election since long time. So our group is asking our leadership to do election and do a lot of, uh, accountability for corrupt leaders. And…
AA: So you’re viewed as challenging them.
IA: Yeah, for sure. We will not, fight the occupation without really fighting our own leadership about their corruption and about dictatorship. On the other hand, there is a lot of human rights violations by the PA and we have something really critical that the Palestinian Authority is in a way or another accepted the pressure of the occupation and they became a subcontractor of the Israeli occupation. They want to keep the status quo. And we as activists, we don’t want to keep the status quo. We want to work to make the occupation costly using nonviolence resistance, that made the PA security forces go after us because we are raising our voices in Palestine and outside Palestine, against Israeli occupation, against Israeli apartheid and, uh, Israeli discrimination and oppression. In the same time, we are raising our voices against Palestinian leadership, corruption, and dictatorship and human rights violations.
AA: When I think about youth-led social movements in other parts of the world, one of the impressions that one gets is that there’s a kind of generational rift, that young people are organizing themselves, but that the elders or older generation of activists have somehow disappeared from the scene, aren’t as engaged anymore, and that seems like quite a contrast with what you are describing. I’m just curious whether for you this close engagement between your, I guess now-forties generation with people who are in their teens and their twenties, whether this close association is why you are able to be successful. Is this integration helpful for young people to be able to succeed in their activism?
IA: Uh, the Israeli occupation had a very famous statement. One of the Israeli leaders said it in the past that, elders will forget and the new generation will not know about their cause. In Palestine, never this happened. We have a kind of generation integration that each leader tries to really stay in resistance until he or she sees that there’s someone else who is really leading. And we see a lot of power among young Palestinians, especially with the revolution of the social media, that they learn fast, they mobilize themselves fast. They, in a way or another, believe in their power, they have more confidence than our generation. They are sometimes more fearless than us and you need to tell them, “wait,” you know, “we need the time and the right place to use your energy,” but in Palestine, we really need the new generation to get their opportunity, to be able to resist the Israeli occupation. And our main obstacle is our old leadership.
AA: And going back to just thinking about your own path, will there come a moment when you feel like it’s time to step aside?
IA: I am a human and, uh, I feel tired, exhausted, burnt out. And many times I, I said to myself, that’s enough.
AA: You’re also quite heavily targeted by
AA: the Israelis and, and have, have found yourself in court. You’ve really had a, a constant battle.
IA: I, I am targeted in all types of, uh, immoral targets, you know, arrest, detention, physical attacks, smears, uh, uh, lies, uh, detention from the Palestinian Authority, indictment
AA: And you’ve spoken about death threats.
IA: Yes, death threats. Uh, it’s not easy, but, uh, for me as a Palestinian, I don’t have other choice. I have one choice to defend my rights, defend my people’s rights and to really become a defender, not a person who coexist with Israeli occupation, coexist with Israeli apartheid, because it’s against the nature of human being to accept to be a second-class citizen in your own country. So me personally, I chose not to be selfish and leave my country and try to find quality life somewhere else in the world. I chose that I will work very hard in Palestine and, uh, try to help my people to resist the Israeli occupation and get their own rights according to international standards. And according to everybody else’s principles and morals. And, uh, we, we want as Palestinians to really have a better future for our own children, away from what we are facing. I don’t want my child to face what I faced and what I’m facing now. And I want really that the skills I got to resist occupation, to give it to other Palestinians to use, maybe they will be lucky that they will be able to end the Israeli occupation. And I’m very optimistic. We are almost there. We have a lot of support on Palestine and outside Palestine for Palestinian cause and outside Palestine, we need to transform the public support to political support and to stay optimistic. Uh, we need unity. We need, uh, transparency. We need more visible solidarity with us. And we need for sure to not lose the hope and stay optimistic that never ever an oppressor stayed forever.
AA: Thank you, Issa.
IA: Welcome, please. Thank you, Akwe.
AA: Issa Amro, Palestinian organizer and activist in Hebron on the West Bank. You can read a transcript of our conversation at strengthandsolidarity.org
AA: If you’re a regular listener to this podcast, you’ll know that we like to end the show with a Coda – a five minute immersion in what human rights workers do to inspire and sustain their work, or revive their spirit in tough times. Today’s Coda comes from Colombia where Vivian Newman Pont, director of human rights research and advocacy organization De Justicia, loves to dance…
(Recorded actuality of Vivian Newman Pont talking and dancing to music: “Feel the music, feel the drum, feel the beat. 1 2, 1 2, 1 2…)
VNP: Well, I love dancing. I’ve always loved dancing and I found ballet and, uh, other, uh, types of dances a bit stiff because, uh, uh, you have to be, you have to follow a path and in salsa it’s a more freestyle thing. So there is a basic step that everyone needs to learn. But once you have that basic step, then you can let your, your intuition flow. Like jazz. One day I was in Mexico and I had to talk about access to information of victims. This was the commemoration of the death of more than a hundred victims in Mexico. And I had been there for more than 24 hours, closed down in a hotel room, preparing my speech and reading the newspapers that day. And they were all talking about this same issue. So it was, it was very, um, it was very difficult to feel well. And I was starting to feel very strange in this hotel room, thinking about the, the difficult situation that all these victims had to suffer. So I decided that I needed to change. I needed to do something different, and I put on some music and that helped me to, to center myself and to feel much better.
VNP: I have those dancing classes every Friday. It’s a way of having your body together with your mind. And we have them in De Justicia as well. We have a professor – the whole team goes and you learn the basic steps. As time goes by, the people start feeling the music and feeling much more together and just feeling happy, because you need to be happy while you’re doing what you’re doing. If you are, if you’re very stressed or very sad, then it will be much more difficult. It helps you out. And it’s also a way of, of being together, a collective sense of spirit, of sharing in happiness.
(Recorded actuality of Vivian teaching the steps: “Okay? And you’re gonna put your arm down here, down here in her waist like that. And you’re going to do the same steps…)
VNP: I also read a book that is very interesting. It’s called Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences by Kristin Luker. And it tells you that in social science, they, they, there’s this big argument between quantitative and qualitative studies and the author just tells you when you have the basic steps, then you can open up to combining quantitative with qualitative. A little bit of here, a little bit of there. And your intuition will lead you. Your “sense of smell” of what to do will help you to sort out the situation and find recommendations and conclusions for social science.
VNP: I mean, we need to have some music with us here. I mean, if we put some music, um, there’s this singer called Joe Arroyo. Yes. Yes. So I have to stand up. So there’s – 1-2-3, 1-2-3 is the basic like one, two – you can make it basic. 1-2, 1-2, and then it starts… and then you move your hips. As Shakira says, hips don’t lie! Basically it’s in the steps, in your feet and always you dance as a couple, also, can I…?
AA: Thank you to Vivian Newman Pont of De Justicia for giving us a dancing lesson.
AA: That’s it for episode 27 of Strength and Solidarity, thanks for your company. If you’re new to the podcast, please do visit the website and have a listen to the rich range of conversations with human rights leaders from all over the world talking about the problems they are trying to solve. And let us know if there’s an issue or a guest you’d like us to include – the address is email@example.com… For now, from our producer Peter Coccoma and me Akwe Amosu – see you next time.