Scales for Justice

Working towards peace and reconciliation



New wave of reprisals against Youth Against Settlements

On 18 December 2015 several United Nations independent experts expressed grave concern at continued reports that human rights defenders in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, particularly in Hebron, are being subjected to physical attacks and death threats,  denounced such harassment as “unacceptable” and called for it to end immediately. They further urged Israeli authorities to lift the military closure of the Youth Against Settlements center in Hebron. The press release is the result of tireless efforts by S4J, that over the past has been in constant touch with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) regarding this case and urged for a strong reaction. Read the history below. 

A history of raids, arbitrary arrests and death threats

Youth Against Settlements (YAS) is a nonviolent activist group based in Hebron, that strengthens the local community’s steadfastness against the illegal expansion of settlements and documents human right violations on the ground in order to raise international awareness. For local and international YAS is often the first source of information from the ground. Nevertheless over the years the group and particularly its founder Issa Amro have continuously faced reprisals from Israeli forces and settlers alike.

Already in August 2013 a group of United Nations independent human rights experts expressed deep concern at the ongoing harassment, intimidation and abusive treatment against Issa Amro. Youth Against Settlement was further subject of a communication from May 2014, after the group published a video online on 27 April 2014 of an altercation between an IDF soldier and two Palestinian youths. 

The group’s center, whose official tenant is Issa Amro, is located in Tel Rumeida and is the central meeting point for activists, international observers and diplomats. The group frequently receives groups from the outside, including from Breaking the Silence. In December 2015 they also hosted a delegation from OCHA, the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, and Action Aid.

Nevertheless reprisals have continuously increased throughout 2015, especially in relation to information shared by YAS such as the killing of Hadeel al Hashlamoun on 22 September 2015.

"Next time, we'll shoot you"

On 22 September 2015 18-year old Hadeel Al Hashlamoun was shot death at checkpoint 56 in Hebron after she allegedly attempted to stab a soldier. In order to protect the international observer Youth Against Settlements published footing in the group’s name.

The pictures went internationally viral and were published by many international media including Reuters, the guardian and al Jazeera, as they clearly contradicted the army’s account of the incident and indicated that Hadeel al Hashlamoun was extrajudicially executed. Amnesty International later wrote that the woman did at no point pose a lethal threat to the soldiers. Even if al-Hashlamoun did have a knife, Israeli soldiers, could have controlled the situation and arrested her without threatening her life, the organization wrote.

Immediately after sharing the pictures of the incident members of Youth Against Settlements came under immense pressure from side of the Israeli army. Over the days following the incident several members of the group were arbitrarily detained, including Mufeed Sharabati, Ahmad Amro, Zedan Sharabati, Mohammad Zoghayer and Mamdouh Amro. 





Settler attacks 

On 11 October 2015 settlers threw stones at the Youth Against Settlements center. When members of the group asked Israeli soldiers to arrest them, a crowd of about 50 settlers gathered in front of the center and 5 settlers heavily armed with machine guns attempted to break in. The army intervened in the very last second, yet acted extremely aggressively against YAS members.

One settler woman claimed that somebody from the group had threatened her with a stick. The army subsequently invaded the center but found nothing. They forced everyone into one room and, one by one, brought everybody to be shown to the settlers.

The settler women identified Mohannad Qafesha as the one who had allegedly threatened her with a stick.  Mohannad Qafesha, who in July 2015 met with the UN Special Rapporteur, Mr. Wibisono, during his country visit to Amman, was subsequently arrested and held in the police station inside the illegal settlement of Kiryat Arba for three hours before being released. Complaints by Youth Against Settlement members regarding stone-throwing by the settlers were completely ignored by both the Israeli army and the Israeli police, yet throughout the incident Israeli soldiers threatened the group numerous times that next time they would “shoot them”.

Threats and intimidations

On 17 October 2015 eighteen-year-old Fadel al Qawasmeh was killed by an armed settler at the entrance to Shuhada Street. The incident was filmed by Zidan Sharbati. The video (later published by Reuters) was distributed by YAS and appeared to show an armed settler standing over Qawasmeh’s body, while Israeli soldiers surround the scene and drop an object next to the body of the Palestinian.

After Youth Against Settlements released the footage Israeli forces detained the group’s media coordinator, Ahmad Amro, for more than three hours. He was beaten up and taken to an area near one of the Israeli settlements where he was forced to lie on the ground, and was searched and held for three hours. Soldiers also threatened to shoot him. They then erased all video footage and warned Ahmad Amro not to film or publish anything anymore, otherwise he would be arrested again.

Another eyewitness to the incident and resident of Shuhada Street, Mufeed Sharbate, activist in Youth Against Settlements, who had spoken with Ma'an after witnessing the shooting, was equally detained the same day and his laptop, a video camera and a photo camera confiscated after the Israeli police raided the apartment of Zidan Sharabati. "They warned that if we filme again, worse would happen to us," said Zidan Sharabati.

18 October 2015

After the killing of Fadel al Qawasmeh, the Israeli army imposed heavy restrictions on Palestinians and particularly Human Rights Defenders in the area. On 18 October 2015, one day after the incident, Issa Amro was attacked by a group of settlers in Shuhada Street. One of the settlers kicked him and claimed that he had a knife in a clear attempt to provoke him. Issa Amro remained calm, yet has been banned from the area for indefinite time. The incident can be seen in the video.

Arrests 

On 27 October 2015 a nonviolent mass protest was held in Hebron against the Israeli government's refusal to return the bodies of Palestinians killed during alleged attacks. The protest, though being totally peaceful with the family members of those killed being in front, came under heavy attack. "Israeli occupation forces fired live ammo, tear gas, rubber-coated bullets [and] stun grenades even though there were no clashes taking place yet," Issa Amro told Al Jazeera. Israeli soldiers shot at least 10 protesters with live ammunition, Issa Amro said, adding that "dozens" more were arrested, "including local human rights defenders and humanitarian workers".

Few hours after the protest, at 2 a.m. in morning of 28 October, YAS spokesperson Mohammad Zoghayer was arrested from his home. Despite biding international law, prohibiting the transfer of prisoners outside of occupied territories Mohammed Zoghayer was then transferred to the Ashkelon Investigation Center of the secret service inside Israel. Until beginning of November he was denied access to his lawyer and no warrant was issued, nor clear information about the reasons for his arrest were communicated except "suspicion of activity against the security of the area". Mohammed was finally released on 3 Devember 2015 and accounted that he had been mistreated, sleep deprived and harshly interrogated especially with regard to his activities with YAS.

A 24 hours siege

In the early morning of 7 November 2015 Israeli soldiers knocked at the door of the YAS center at about 5 a.m. and asked about Issa Amro. The Italian journalist and a German activist who had spent the night in the center were informed that the center was declared a military zone and demanded from Issa Amro to come.

Fearing that the soldiers had come to arrest, Issa Amro waited for Israeli supporters from Jerusalem to join. When the group arrived at the center about 7 a.m., the Israeli activists were prevented from getting inside. Issa Amro however was taken into the kitchen and harshly questioned where the group had hidden its ‘guns’. “Go and search”, Issa Amro replied, “We have hundreds of ‘guns’ – in form of cameras. Cameras are our weapons”. – “Don’t play with me”, the soldier replied, “I will shoot you”.

Soldiers then confiscated Issa Amro’s phones and laptop and pushed him into one room downstairs together with the internationals. Immediately after the internet was shut down and with it all connection to the outside world. Soldiers rummaged through the center, yet nobody from the group was allowed to leave the room. The German activist was released about lunchtime due to diplomatic pressure by the German embassy. 

About 2 p.m., a crowd started to gather around the center, among them many from YAS, supporters, neighbors and journalists. Hundreds of settlers also arrived on the scene and started to violently attack activists, supported by the army, which fired excessive amounts of teargas and volleys of rubber bullets against all non-settlers trying to get close. Even a live broadcast was violently interrupted.
Four activists from YAS, who despite the pressure had managed to reach the house, were dragged into the house and locked up downstairs in the second room of the center and also had their mobiles confiscated. Contrary to YAS members and supporters, settlers were not dispersed. Throughout the afternoon they continued to gather in hundreds and celebrated the take-over of the house. All the time they chanted “Death to the Arabs”. A number of them even came into the house, which especially infuriated the Israeli activists who had joined Issa Amro earlier in the morning and were prevented from providing help.
Inside the center the situation remained extremely tensed. Neither YAS coordinator Issa Amro nor the Italian journalists and the other YAS activists were allowed to go to the bathroom or get something from the kitchen without a special permit - depending on the mood of the soldiers. One of them, apparently himself a settler, told Issa Amro “This action is because you are filming and spreading lies about Israel.”

Despite all protests and announcements by the soldiers that they would leave, the siege continued all over the night. About 9 p.m. the people held in the center heard the soldiers rummaging the media center upstairs and climbing on the roof to remove the Palestinian flag. Throughout the night the activists together with the Italian activist , who had decided not to leave, constantly feared for their lives. The soldiers did not leave until Sunday 8 November, 5 a.m, announcing they would come back the following day and take over the house. (Indeed they were heard about 4 a.m. the following night). After the army left, YAS members assessed the damage and found that the army had destroyed furniture, stolen cameras and laptops as well as 2 hard disks and 15 memory cards, the damage amounting to 15.000$.

Settlers demand the closure of the center

 On Friday 27 November 2015, during a YAS meeting, soldiers arrested the youngest member of the group, Ahmed Azza, claiming that he had been waving a knife. When Issa Amro intervened and stated that Ahmed Azza had been with them the entire time and that there was video evidence that he had not been moving around with a knife, the soldiers accused him of preventing the army from doing their work. Issa Amro was equally taken into custody and brought to the military base, where he was kept blindfolded on a toilet chair in a smelly bathroom for four and a half hours with his hands cuffed behind his back. Soldiers opened and slammed the door, chanting his name outside and some threatened to shoot him. This was followed by an hour of interrogation. He was then released.

Back at the center, Israeli settlers surrounded the house while insulting the inhabitants, shouting that they were “sons of dogs” or “sons of bitches.” The soldiers proceeded to raid the center while ordering everyone to sit on chairs outside, keeping the Palestinians at a distance from the Danish activist and an Italian journalist. The soldiers confiscated all of the Palestinians’ cell phones for approximately two hours while the house was raided. The Israeli police arrived and recorded the passport information of the two internationals as well as the ID information of the Palestinians. The Youth Against Settlement activists were allowed back into the house after approximately one hour and a half.

Throughout the process settlers surrounded the house and watched the events. They brought chairs, blankets, tables, and mattresses outside as a way to block the path to the house. With the intention of provoking Youth Against Settlements activists and under the protection of the army they then camped out in front of the center the entire night, claiming that the YAS center belonged to them and demanding from the army to shut down the YAS center.

In the early morning of Saturday 28 November about 25 settlers and soldiers were still present on the scene and the group continued to gather throughout the day. The army did nothing to prevent them. About 11 a.m. Issa, who is the official tenant of the YAS center, and his landlord filed a complaint with the police against the settlers, who occupied the area in front of the center and blocked the path into the house. The police officers said that the Israeli army’s Hebron’s brigade commander authorized the settlers to be there, thus leaving the police powerless. About 4 p.m. soldiers threatened Issa Amro to lock him in a bathroom stall again, this time for longer, if he continued to complain.

Around 18 p.m. in the evening of 28 November settlers tried to attack YAS members. They threw stones and attempted to enter. The army only intervened when YAS members, who together with international and Israeli activists were now about 20, shouted loud.

Ahmed Azza stayed in detention until 3 December 2015, despite exonerating evidence.

A closed military zone 

On 12 December 2015 the area around the YAS center was declared a military zone and nobody except Issa Amro allowed to stay. The map was clearly drawn in a way to include the center and was tantamount to its closure. When on 25 December 2015 a group of journalists from Germany came to the yard, the army commander arrested Issa Amro for one hour, although even under Israeli law he is not legally responsible for maintaining the closed military zone. The name of the responsible commander is Eli Malkh, a close friend of Baroukh Marzel, head of the Kahana settler movement.


Reaction by the UN

On 18 December 2015 UN SR Michel Forst and Marakim Wibisono issued a joint statement, expressing grave concern at continued reports about physical attacks and death threats against human rights defenders in the oPt, particularly Hebron. Mr. Marakim Wibisono further noted “We recently addressed concerns to the Israeli Government regarding retaliatory acts by Israeli authorities against members of one organization based in Hebron, Youth Against Settlements...” He noted that the Centre has now effectively been shut down as a result of the Israeli military declaring the surrounding area a military zone and added “We urge Israeli authorities to lift this military order.”

Israel however continues to ignore the international pressure. Despite the call by the UN on 3 January 2016 the military order around the YAS center was been renewed until the time of this writing. The center is located at the edge of where the closed military zone has been extended (see map attached). The group is extremely worried for the closure of their center to be permanent.


States are legally bound 

The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders contains a series of principles and rights that are based on legally biding international instruments such as the ICCPR. States have to take all necessary measures to ensure the protection of everyone against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights.
Despite several communications sent by the UN the reprisals against YAS are systematic and continued. The situation has become particularly severe since tensions rose in September/ October 2015. Numerous times members of the group had to fear for their lives, notably when it came to the failure of the Israeli army to prevent settler attacks.
Especially the complicity between settlers and soldiers thereby lead to an unbearable situation.

The reprisals against YAS are a serious violation of article 9 and 19 of the ICCPR, stating that everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention; and that everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression.
Mohammad Zoghayer’s transfer to a detention center inside Israel further clearly constitutes a violation of Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well as article 49 and 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibit the transfer of prisoners outside of occupied territory.

Requests

 In view of the recent escalation of violence in the oPt and the snowballing spiral of reprisals against human rights defenders, journalists and international observers in the oPt in general and Youth Against Settlements in particular, action could not be more urgent. S4J therefore will continue to call on the UN to

  • Pressure the Israeli authorities to lift the military zone around the YAS center in Hebron
   
  •  Urgently remind the Israeli authorities of their obligation under international law to guarantee freedom of speech and end their systematic harassment of human rights defenders in the oPt in general and Youth Against Settlements in particular
  

 If you are facing reprisals for peaceful activities and wish S4J to advocate for your case at the UN send a message to info@s4j.ch