by Sirin Kale
Two Palestinian human rights activists from the occupied West Bank city of Al-Khalil are talking about the apartheid Israeli occupation measures against them.
I'm nervous, heading to the London Amnesty International offices to interview Palestinian human rights activists Issa Amro and Farid al-Atrash.
The history of the Israel-Palestine conflict is as thorny as a holly bush and tightly knotted as an old oak tree. I'm scared I'll say something dumb, or offensive or both. That I'll embarrass myself, basically. What do you say to human rights activists in one of the most oppressive, overlooked places on earth?
Amro and al-Atrash have both been arrested multiple times for their peaceful, non-violent activism, for charges that Amnesty International have dismissed as baseless. Al-Atrash has been shot in the leg and tortured by the Israeli authorities, he claims.
Like Al-atrash, Amro – of the non-violent Youth Against Settlements group – has also been arrested and charged by an Israeli military court. But it's not just the Israeli government Amro needs to worry about: perversely, he's also being victimised by the Palestinian National Authority, the interim government of Palestine's West Bank, where both men live in the city of Al-Khalil.
Occupation and settlement
It's been 50 years since Israel began illegally annexing Palestinian land in the West Bank. Since then, 100,000 hectares of land have been stolen from Palestine; 50,000 homes have been demolished and 4.9 million Palestinians face daily restrictions on their movement.
In recent months, unchecked by the international community, Israel has accelerated its settlement expansion. No one living in the West Bank is untouched by the devastating consequences of this land grab.
"You see it all the time," comments Amro. "My neighbourhood used to be called 'Bab al-Khan,' for example. Now it's called 'Emek Havron,’ which means the Al-Khalil Valley' in Hebrew."
Like Apartheid-era South Africa or the Deep South during the time of the Jim Crow laws, even streets in Amro's neighbourhood are segregated along ethnic lines. "It's 2017, and they ask you, 'what is your religion' as you walk down the street in Al-Khalil. If you're Jewish, or British, or American, you walk on the main road. And if I'm a Muslim, I walk on the side of the road. And a fence or wall separates us."
Amro – who has the soft, calming manner of a doctor or university professor – grows agitated. "We walk down the road together, but separated by a wall. Then we meet again at the end of the street. They say it's about security. But that doesn't make any sense! If it's about security, why are we allowed to come together at the end of street?"
He leans in. "It's about isolation and segregation. We say it, loud."
Highest rate of disorders
Being segregated in this way takes a psychological toll. According to one recent study, Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation have the highest rates of mental health disorders in the Middle East.
But if being an ordinary Palestinian trying to survive in the West Bank is hard enough, being a human rights activist under the Israeli occupation is like having a target on your back.
Al-Atrash was arrested at a demonstration in Al-Khalil on February 26, 2016, and detained for five days. While being conveyed from the detention centre to Ofer military court, Al-Atrash alleges the Israeli military forces dreamt up an innovative way to transport him.
‘Put me in a coffin’
"They put me in a box that was just the size of my body," al-Atrash says. "A wooden box, with only a small hole to breathe through. I was blindfolded. It felt like I was in a grave."
The experience was all the more humiliating because of Al-Atrash's profession. "I'm a lawyer! A defender of human rights. And this was done to me. It was outrageous. It was the worst day of my life."
Although both men are facing multiple criminal charges (Amro has 18 counts against him, dating back from 2010, while Al-Atrash has a court hearing next month), they're both determined to continue to non-violently resist – even while receiving multiple death threats, many of them credible.
"I want to end the occupation now. I want to make Israel accountable for its human rights violations," says Amro. "Fifty years has passed without any real efforts to put pressure on Israel. Without real international pressure, the occupation will never end."