March 11 marked the beginning of Israeli Apartheid Week in Palestine. The annual series of events, lectures, rallies, and demonstrations, held globally by university groups and independent organizations, kicked off at the end of February. The aim of Apartheid Week is to spread awareness of Israeli settler-colonialism and the discriminatory regime put in place by Israel which, activists and intellectuals have long argued, has effectively created a de-facto one-state system in which Palestinians – whether living in the West Bank, Gaza or Israel – are systematically, if to different degrees, discriminated against and denied their full rights.
The events held throughout the world are used to inform, educate and empower people about the Palestinian cause and ongoing resistance to the colonial settlements established throughout Palestine. A UN report published this week acknowledged for the first time the nature of the regime put in place by Israel by using the word 'apartheid'. While it may not be groundbreaking in and of itself, the report marks a shift in the UN's analysis of the situation in Occupied Palestine. It also calls on governments to "support boycott, divestment and sanctions [BDS] activities and respond positively to calls for such initiatives".
During Israeli Apartheid Week, many organizations throughout Palestine hold and participate in events and workshops that foster solidarity within the Palestinian community. These organizations help to spread awareness about apartheid through their work and outreach in Palestine.
Youth Against Settlements (YAS), a grassroots organization based in Hebron, in the southern West Bank, is a key organization in the city. YAS is made up of Palestinian and international human rights activists that document Israeli violations and work to support the local community. They campaign against the illegal settlements built in Hebron and fight for the right to equality and freedom of movement throughout the city.
Co-founded by Palestinian activist Issa Amro, who was born and raised in Hebron, YAS was established back in 2007. Issa established YAS based on the strategies of non-violence and civil disobedience after experiencing the benefits of these tactics.
He explained that his university in Hebron, Palestine Polytechnic University, was shut down after being declared a closed military zone in 2002, during the second intifada. He read about Apartheid South Africa, the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi and adopted the tactics of non-violence to organize demonstrations. After six months of organizing and protesting the university was reopen. Amro, who did not come from a political family, saw that he needed to get involved and be active in Hebron's struggle.
“I tasted the victory of challenging the Israeli army in the middle of the second intifada,” Amro said about that first non-violent confrontation. “Where tanks were closing streets, army jeeps were everywhere, you don’t move from one street to another without a checkpoint. So we won and that made me open my eyes that I should do something for my community,” he added.
He started working as a coordinator with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in Hebron, a global organization with chapters all over Palestine and the world. He worked with other local organizations in Hebron, like Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), at first in the villages.
“I then wanted to focus more on the old city of Hebron that was suffering from discrimination, apartheid, settler violence and soldier violence”, Amro continued. He went on to establish Youth Against Settlements.
YAS focus on Palestinian youth, who are targeted the most by Israeli forces. Amro argues that it is important for the youth to be active in a way the occupying forces know they are there to fight and persist against apartheid and occupation.
YAS is based out of Hebron's restricted area, H2. The headquarters was a former military base from 2001- 2006 that Amro fought to rent in order to have a Palestinian presence in the restricted settler zone of Hebron. The Palestinian flag is raised in the front of the house where they hold workshops and events for the youth of Hebron to participate in. They organize English classes, workshops on non-violent demonstrations, and media trainings by holding workshops on filming and using documentation as a tool.
YAS teaches the youth about how to cope with the occupation by training them about how to take their anger and transfer it into a positive reaction by being active and involved within the community. Within the community of Hebron, YAS is currently working to establish a cinema, and has set up a kindergarten in the restricted zone. It was the first public institution in 22 years to be opened there.
Israeli Apartheid Week is an important time for the organization and the youth to be involved within the community by holding film screenings on apartheid, as well as inviting international activists to come and witness the apartheid taking place in Hebron so they can share their stories in solidarity with the youth and community of Hebron. YAS sends information and materials to university groups and institutions abroad that they can use in their Apartheid Weeks to show solidarity with the youth and community of Hebron.
“It's is not about the soldiers, it's about the system and blind support behind the occupation,” Amro argues. “Israel cannot maintain the occupation without the blind support”.
The city of Hebron is a fundamental city in the case of apartheid. Hebron is the second largest city in the West Bank, after East Jerusalem. It his home to approximately 200,000 people. Historically made up of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish populations and is believed to be the burial site of the prophet Abraham.
Since the military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, Hebron has been heavily impacted due the building of illegal settlements. Surrounded by military checkpoints and the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba, home to approximately 8000 settlers, Hebron is sectioned off as H1(under Palestinian Authority) and H2 (under Israeli control). The latter being a closed military zone, allowing only registered Palestinians access whilst allowing free movement to Israeli settlers. The military and settler occupation of Hebron has forcibly removed Palestinian inhabitants from the old city, creating a “ghost town” from a once prosperous city.
Organizations and activists, like Amro, use Israeli Apartheid Week as a time to refocus attention on an international level to the Palestinian struggle against apartheid.
“Apartheid week is a big opportunity for the Palestinians to express their life in Palestine, and to tell how it is happening. Especially in Hebron, you can see the real image of apartheid with concrete examples,” Amro said. “So we try to use the apartheid week to motivate and mobilize people to act against the occupation…We try to make the youth aware of apartheid, what it means, and what it means that their rights are discriminated and how to tell the story of apartheid.”