Listen: How Palestinian rights activists halted Virginia’s anti-boycott bill

On 26 February, Palestinians in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron participated in a demonstration to commemorate the 22nd anniversary of the massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque, where in 1994 a New York-born Israeli settler, Baruch Goldstein, opened fire, killing 29 Palestinian worshippers and wounding more than one hundred.

The protesters also called for the lifting of Israeli military orders imposed in November 2015 which restrict the freedom of movement for the Palestinian residents of areas of the Old City, where the mosque is located.

Israeli settlers are allowed to roam the area as they please, under heavy protection by the Israeli military.

During the demonstration, Israeli forces fired stun grenades and massive amounts of tear gas, in what the International Solidarity Movement called an “ambush.”

Israeli soldiers also assaulted and arrested Farid al-Atrash, a prominent human rights lawyer with the Independent Commission for Human Rights, who participated in the demonstration.

Ma’an News Agency reported that the organization called the violence used against al-Atrash “a crime.” Al-Atrash was released from Israeli detention on 1 March.

In an interview with The Electronic Intifada on Thursday, Issa Amro, coordinator with local organization Youth Against Settlements, said that his group helped organize the demonstration as part of their ongoing campaign to open the areas of the Old City that have been sealed off to Palestinian residents and handed over to armed settlers.

There were also concurrent demonstrations held in Europe and the US.

“The Israeli soldiers attacked our peaceful protest. They used violence — and for the first time, they aimed at me to shoot me by a direct order from one of the commanders,” Amro explained. “They were very violent.”

Amro was himself arrested on 29 February and jailed overnight by Israeli forces. He says he was accused of “incitement against Israel” for his organizing activities and told to await a court date.

Youth Against Settlements states that Amro was held at an Israeli military detention facility inside the Gush Etzion settlement, where al-Atrash was also being jailed.

Israel has been charging an increasing number of Palestinian activists, journalists and social media users with “incitement” for their political speech.

“The Israeli occupation forces don’t want anyone to speak loudly against the occupation, against the apartheid, against the discrimination,” Amro said. “My arrest was a kind of intimidation — to threaten me to go away from [the neighborhood of] Tel Rumeida and the Old City and stop my nonviolent activities and my human rights work.”

Amnesty International last week urged Israel to “lift the discriminatory restrictions, end the collective punishment of Palestinians in the city and protect human rights defenders there.”

The Institute for Middle East Understanding recently released this short video documenting the work by Amro and Youth Against Settlements to nonviolently resist Israeli occupation and settlement policies in the Old City:

Virginia anti-boycott bill tabled

Meanwhile, in Virginia, activists from a broad-based coalition were able to rally thousands of citizens against the passing of a bill that would have required the state to compile information on the boycott Israel movement.

The bill could have also led to a McCarthyite blacklist of companies that don’t do business with Israel. It was tabled until next year in a unanimous vote by the state senate.

Activists with the Freedom2Boycott in Virginia coalition say that state legislators “heard from thousands of Virginians who are fed up with the status quo of unconditional US support for Israel and its violations of Palestinian rights, and support BDS as a peaceful tool for Palestinians seeking their freedom.”

In late February, US President Barack Obama signed a trade bill into law that aims to shield Israel from the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign under the guise of protecting competitive trade.

The bill is part of a growing wave of anti-BDS legislation introduced into nearly two dozen states and at the federal level by pro-Israel lawmakers and backed by Israel lobby groups as well as the Israeli government itself.

However, BDS activists, Palestine solidarity organizers and legal experts are fighting against the efforts at repressing boycotts, which are constitutionally protected as free speech under a landmark 1982 US Supreme Court decision.

In an interview with The Electronic Intifada, Freedom2Boycott in Virginia co-chair Saba Shami said that the bill was “dangerous.”

“It was supposed to impose penalties on companies and individuals in Virginia who do more than $10,000 worth of business with the state if they are found … in violation of ‘I love Israel’ rules,” Shami said.

Seth Morrison, a fellow organizer with the coalition and a national board member of Jewish Voice for Peace, added that “for the first time, the legislators heard opposition” to the bills and resolutions that champion Israel and economic relationships with the Israeli government.

“I think a lot of them were taken by surprise,” Morrison added. “Suddenly, the politicians started hearing from thousands of constituents, from voters, who said ‘wait a minute, we have a problem here — Israel is not treating the Palestinians well.’ And I think that’s what’s really making a difference.”

Campaigners went to committee hearings and visited legislators “office to office” in the state capital, Shami and Morrison said, distributing fact sheets on Israel’s occupation policies and meeting with lawmakers in person.

“We have to be active in our states,” Morrison said. “We need them to know that they can no longer rubber-stamp these resolutions and bills in support of Israel.”

Listen to the interviews with Issa Amro and Saba Shami and Seth Morrison via the media player above.

Image: Palestinian protesters in Hebron hold banners during a demonstration against the 22-year closure of parts of the Old City to Palestinian residents, 26 February. (Wisam Hashlamoun / APA Images)

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).