Surrounded by Israeli settlers, checkpoints, and empty streets closed by the military, human rights activist Issa Amro spent his first day out of jail at home, in campaign mode and planning his next moves to resist Israel’s occupation of his city.
Amro’s nonviolent activism with his group, Youth Against Settlements, or YAS, has won him international recognition — he recently traveled to Capitol Hill in Washington and met with members of Congress — and drawn the ire of Israeli security forces. His latest detention and interrogation in early September, however, wasn’t in an Israeli military prison. Instead, Amro was being held in a Palestinian Authority jail.
Arrested for a Facebook post criticizing the Palestinian Authority’s arrest of six journalists in August and calling on President Mahmoud Abbas to resign, he spent six days late this summer going between a cramped cell and an interrogation room trying to make sense of his charges under a new, far-reaching cyber-crimes law decreed by Abbas.
Reclining into the couch in his bare sitting room after his release, Amro sighed and rubbed his shoulder. He said Palestinian security forces beat him during his first interrogation and that he maintained a hunger strike throughout his detention.
“It’s heartbreaking. You expect your people to support you, not jail you.”
“It’s heartbreaking,” Amro said, drawing a contrast with the national pride and collective solidarity he and fellow activists rely on to get them through stints in Israeli prisons. “You expect your people to support you, not jail you.”
Now, facing charges in both Israeli military court and Palestinian Authority civilian court, Amro has become the most high-profile example of a simultaneous crackdown by Israeli and Palestinian security forces. In the wake of July’s mass Al Aqsa mosque protests, Israel has engaged in a widening arrest campaign targeting Palestinian activists, students, and young people in Jerusalem and West Bank refugee camps. In tandem, the Palestinian Authority has targeted online dissent with new anti-dissent laws arrests, and harassment of critics.
Amro lives on a hill above the historic old city market of Hebron, in the West Bank. The 37-year-old activist and his family are among the few remaining Palestinian residents yet to be forced from their homes by some of Israel’s most aggressive and violent settlers. While the small settler community has steadily tightened its grip on the heart of the Palestinian city since moving there in 1968, Amro has turned his home amid the settlers’ enclave into YAS headquarters.
The main road near his home is patrolled by Israeli troops, and many of his neighbors are Israeli civilians who regularly attack and torment the remaining Palestinians under the full protection and impunity of the army. Down the hill, historic Hebron’s main market street has been forcibly closed and its stalls shuttered since the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. A section of the street is open to Israelis, but not Palestinians; the army calls it a “sterile” road.
After crossing an Israeli checkpoint into H2 – the part of the city where 30,000 Palestinians live under settler domination, backed by Israeli military might – the easiest way to Amro’s home is a side path through an olive grove, avoiding the spite of hard-line Jewish nationalists who strive to make life uncomfortable for Palestinians. Amro’s home and activist center is distinguishable from the settlers’ homes because of a large Palestinian flag.
Amro must contend with the Palestinian Authority, as well as the Israeli occupation.
It is from this modest building that Amro has made his name by campaigning to open closed roads and protest the mistreatment of Palestinians in Hebron. He is regularly harassed by settlers and arrested by the army.
Now, Amro must contend with the Palestinian Authority as well. He said that despite arresting him for a social media post about Palestinian politics, during his days of interrogation, Palestinian security forces were more interested in his anti-occupation activism.
“They were much, much more concerned about my YAS activities and my relationships” with other activists, a weary Amro said about his interrogators from the Palestinian intelligence and the Orwellian-named Preventive Security Forces. “They accused me of activities that gave the Israelis an excuse to close areas and of provoking settlers.”
When U.S. President Donald Trump announced his plan to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, the Palestinian Authority struck a posture of defiance in the name of the people it purports to represent. At the same time, however, Abbas had long been engaged in a crackdown on his own people’s freedoms. Amid a crisis where Abbas and Palestinian leaders face an existential crisis over a failed 17-year peace process, the climate of repression for activists since the July protests has contributed to the mistrust Palestinians feel for their leaders. When those leaders recently called mass protests in response to Trump’s announcement, the demonstrations were smaller than expected.
The Palestinian Authority campaign against Palestinians serves as a complement to Israel’s own actions since the Al Aqsa demonstrations. The mass protests and public prayers in Jerusalem — which forced Israel to back down on security measures imposed on a Muslim holy site — shocked both Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Israel’s reaction was predictable: 880 Palestinians were arrested and detained in July, including 425 people from occupied East Jerusalem, according to the Palestinian prisoners rights organization, Addameer. The group calculated that Israeli security forces arrested another 522 people, including 194 Palestinians from Jerusalem, in August.
Shawan Jabarin, director of the Palestinian human rights organization Al Haq, noted an increase in nightly military raids against Palestinians across the West Bank. “The average number of arrests per night is around 19,” said Jabarin. “The number of those in administrative detention” — an Israeli tactic to hold detainees on vague security grounds, absent any charges — “is 650. It’s increased dramatically in the last few months.”
Most of the activists arrested, according to Jabarin, are in their late teens. “There is a new generation coming and the Israelis are targeting them,” he said.
The Palestinian Authority felt pressure in the wake of the Al Aqsa protests to act on rising discontent, over which it had been unable to exercise control.
While the Israelis reacted by ramping up arrests and night raids, the Palestinian Authority felt pressure in the wake of the Al Aqsa protests to act on rising discontent, over which it had been unable to exercise control. Officials took strong symbolic stands against Israeli intransigence.
As the protests came to a head at the end of July, Abbas officially canceled the Palestinian Authority’s security coordination agreement with Israel. (In response, Israel increased its military raids into the parts of the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority’s security jurisdiction.) The coordination is loathed among Palestinians because the agreement’s practical effect has been to have Palestinian security forces facilitate Israel’s occupation. Even Nabil Shaath, a negotiator of the earliest incarnation of the agreement in 1994, has acknowledged that many Palestinians consider it treason.
Though still officially suspended, some coordination with Israel has resumed, according to Shaath, a senior Fatah official in the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority. “Very selectively,” he said about the Palestinian Authority’s resumption of direct coordination. “We are doing what’s really needed.”
“We don’t want violence, he added. “That’s why we are doing our best not to allow lapses in security coordination to lead to any violence.”
He implied that in areas where they may not be official communicating with Israel, the Palestinian Authority is independently taking measures to maintain the agreement’s objectives. However, because of statements made by unnamed Palestinian security officials to Israeli media, many Palestinians believe security coordination never ended in practice. Even though Abbas has declared the Palestinians free from the obligations of previous accords with Israel, he has not made any announcements affirming the end of security coordination or severing institutional cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
Security coordination has led to suspicions that a Palestinian Authority hand is at work in the Israeli crackdown. Laith Abu Zeyad, Addameer’s international advocacy officer, said his group has learned from speaking with Jerusalem activists arrested amid the Al Aqsa protests that they were questioned by Israeli interrogators because of information-sharing with the Palestinian Authority. “We have heard cases in July of people that were interrogated by Israel and told that this is because of the PA,” he said. Israel and “the PA follow the same path.”
While the Palestinian Authority was striking a posture of support for the Al Aqsa protesters, the new cyber-crimes law was issued by presidential decree from Abbas’s office in the wake of the protesters’ victory.
The protests carried considerable hostility toward Abbas and Fatah’s leadership for their inability to unify a national movement or end the occupation. While a joint Palestinian-Jordanian religious trust, the Waqf, the custodial authority over the Al Aqsa mosque, called for protests, much of the mass mobilization happened through social media.
In addition to arresting six journalists viewed as sympathetic to Hamas, the rival to Abbas’s Fatah party, the Palestinian Authority expanded its effort to curtail online dissent. While the Palestinian Authority has pursued activists for online statements in the past, under the new law more than 30 websites have been blocked, and stiff penalties were created for anyone who uses social media to amplify messages of dissent.
Palestinian critics of Abbas’s rule are being criminalized.
The law stipulates that offenders face at least one year in prison or fines of least $1,410 for “creating or managing a website or an information technology platform that would endanger the integrity of the Palestinian state, the public order, or the internal or external security of the State.” In practice, Palestinian critics of Abbas’s rule are being criminalized.
The tack mimicked Israel’s crackdown on Palestinian online dissent that has been ongoing since 2016, but increased in 2017, according to Al Haq. However, Jabarin also pointed to the influence of post-coup Egypt’s intelligence and security apparatus, which has participated in training Palestinian Authority forces and has growing influence on the Palestinian political establishment.
Since the coup that unseated the country’s first democratically elected government and installed a military dictatorship in 2013, Egypt’s ties with Israel have deepened. Meanwhile, the Egyptian dictatorship has itself cracked down viciously on online activism. Recently, Egyptian legislators and state security forces have started their own campaign to repress online dissent and shut down human rights activists and organizations.
Egypt’s involvement in Palestinian politics, however, is not limited to training security forces. Egyptian intelligence played a crucial role in brokering and influencing the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation process — which finally allowed the unity government formed in 2014 to hold a cabinet meeting in Gaza in September and restart the process of ending national division.
“We thought this was an Israeli thing. But lately — the Palestinians from one side, the Israelis from another, and the Egyptians when you look regionally,” said Jabarin. “And I think in this case, they are learning from each other.”
Amro stressed that during his interrogation, Palestinian security officials asked a lot about his thoughts on the 20l1 Egyptian revolution. He described his interrogators as believing — like Egyptian authorities do — that the popular mass uprising that brought together a wide Egyptian social coalition was planned by foreign NGOs. Amro said he got the impression that Palestinian security official were nervous, in the wake of the mass Al Aqsa protests, about the potential for a similar revolt in the occupied territories.
“I think after the Arab Spring,” said Amro, “they are afraid of our activism.”
Amro was not alone among prominent figures who had been hauled in by Palestinian security forces working under the authority of the cyber-crimes law. Freelance photojournalist Mohammad Alhaj had also been detained for a posting on social media. After a pair of interrogations, Alhaj fled to Jordan in September.
The flap began in the days that followed Abbas’s declaration that the Palestinian Authority had quit coordinating with Israel. A photo of an internal letter sent by the Palestinian Minister of Civil Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh circulated on social media. The letter, addressed to other parts of the Palestinian Authority bureaucracy, instructed those offices to maintain their relationships with their Israeli interlocutors.
“We would like to confirm that the declaration by his Excellency Mr. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) on Friday evening regarding the freezing of communications with the Israeli side does not include your directorates,” says the letter, which is dated July 21. “It also does not include security coordination.” (The Intercept has only seen the photo of the letter that circulated online, not an original copy, and cannot independently verify its authenticity.)
Alhaj was among those who posted the photo to his Facebook page — and said he was called in for questioning by Palestinian Authority military intelligence because of it. In August, just over a month prior to his questioning, Alhaj said Palestinian intelligence got in touch and sought to recruit him to provide information on other journalists and activists. He refused.
After posting the photo, he was called in, he said. The officials who brought him in, he said, accused him of violating the cyber-crimes law. The Palestinian security forces called in his brother, who is in poor health, to lure Alhaj to the station and coerce him into cooperating, he said by phone from Jordan. The security officials — an interrogator and several police officers — told him if he didn’t comply that the same cyber-crimes charge he faced would be leveled against his brother.
“They said that, ‘We know about your brother and this whole thing is on you. So, you can cooperate, answer the questions, sign the statement, and take your brother’s hand and walk out of here. Or, if you don’t cooperate, we’ll send you to the basement floor for military interrogation,’” Alhaj recalled. The reference to an underground military interrogation is commonly understood by detained Palestinians to be a reference to torture during questioning.
As a result, Alhaj felt forced into handing over access to his phone, email, and social media accounts and signing a confession that admits to violating the cyber-crimes law and disrupting public order.
While his crime was supposedly an illegal online post, the interrogator’s interest was primarily in Alhaj’s activist and journalist contacts, he said. Alhaj recalled, “They wanted to know about sources, people I know, connections I had in the security services.”
Owing to the threats he feels from his government, Alhaj doesn’t know when — or if — he’ll be able to return home.
Activists involved in the March 15 movement, the 2011 Palestinian protest campaign inspired by the Arab revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, have described renewed harassment by Palestinian security forces. In the past months, leaders from the disparate unarmed protests against Israel’s wall in various villages reported being summoned by the Palestinian Authority for questioning.
Amro said that while he was being interrogated, Palestinian security officials were particularly interested in finding out his thoughts on security coordination with Israel. He depicted a political context in which Israel is clamping down because its occupation is threatened by a new generation of Palestinian leaders, while Palestinian representatives appear threatened by anyone challenging the status quo.
“They don’t want any independent leader that has respect from his community. No strong leaders, no young leaders, because they see us replacing them.”
“They are afraid of any big action, they want people to stay calm,” Amro, a former Fatah member, said of the Palestinian Authority. “They don’t want any independent leader that has respect from his community. No strong leaders, no young leaders, because they see us replacing them.”
Currently between trial dates in both Israeli and Palestinian courts, Amro must now navigate being a target on two fronts. He has become familiar with gray slabs of concrete, high fences, and soldiers that surround Israeli prisons that house the military courts in the West Bank. But the Palestinian Authority prison was new to him. So was the Palestinian Authority courthouse that, at first glance, appears to be a residential apartment building in Hebron, with a convenience store in the front and a parking garage in the back. The hearings themselves can also be unremarkable — not least because the judge can decide, as he did in Amro’s initial appearance, that proceedings should be closed to the public if the events are drawing undesired scrutiny.
Amro is playing a waiting game now to see which of the two political forces that dominate his life will try to lock him up next: a commander of the army that occupies his street, or a judge from his official leadership working out of what looks like an apartment building in the city he was born in.