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‘This trial is not just about me; it’s about all activists under occupation’

Ben Lynfield
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Published: 1 March 2022

Last updated: 4 March 2024

BEN LYNFIELD: Sami Hureini has been charged after organising local youth to document efforts to destroy West Bank Palestinian homes and peacefully protest against it

THE FATE OF a charismatic Palestinian youth leader is at stake as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) prosecutes him for allegedly assaulting soldiers and ratchets up pressure on his home area, the south Hebron hills in the occupied West Bank.

The IDF spokesman told The Jewish Independent that a 1.30 am raid in Sami Hureini's village of Tuwani on February 16 was part of routine "counterterrorism operations". Hureini said six jeeps entered the village and troops arrested two civilians, one a man about 60 years old. They were released later in the day, he said.

The raid came between sessions of a military court trial that could put Hureini, 24, behind bars for up to seven years. Israeli military courts in the West Bank have a nearly one hundred percent conviction rate, according to the B'tselem human rights group. But Hureini has rejected the possibility of a plea bargain and pleaded not guilty.

Palestinians and Hureini's left-wing Israeli supporters say the real aim of the trial is to remove an effective and non-violent leader of resistance to the occupation in the West Bank.

Tuwani is situated in an area where senior settler leader, Yochai Damri, recently urged, during an interview with The Jewish Independent, the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians, including most of Hureini's village.

Wedged between two settlements and close to Mufaqara village that was attacked in September by dozens of hooded settlers, Tuwani, is part of the rural 60 percent of the West Bank known as Area C, which most of the international community views as the heartland of a future Palestinian state.

However, Israeli rights groups say a broad de facto Israeli annexation effort is underway there, consisting partly in destroying homes of Palestinians and pressuring them in other ways while expanding Israeli settlements.

Hureini is an obstacle to that effort, in part because he has organised local youth to document it and peacefully protest against it. He also speaks decent English peppered with sharp epithets against Israeli oppression, a kind of Palestinian Malcolm X, except that he says his personal choice is non-violence.

People under occupation have the right to resist in all ways. But my choice is non-violence.

"This trial is not just about me. It's about all activists under occupation," Hureini told The Jewish Independent during an interview at his home in Tuwani last week. Dressed in a training suit jacket, he seemed confident and relaxed as he spoke, nearby sat his grandmother, a refugee he said was expelled from the Beersheba area during the 1948 war.

In the south Hebron hills, where unauthorised and illegal settlements are hooked up to water and electricity while entire Palestinian hamlets face demolition orders, one doesn't have to look hard to find injustice.

Israeli troops escorted bulldozers on Wednesday as they demolished five Palestinian homes in the area, Hureini told me over the phone, and sent footage of some of the wreckings filmed by the group he leads, Youth of Sumud (“steadfastness”).

<em>Youth of Sumud protest, led by Sami Hureini</em>
Youth of Sumud protest, led by Sami Hureini

The group, which Hureini says does not belong to any political faction, also organises protests and escorts children and shepherds in an area prone to settler violence.

"The occupation keeps on insisting on ethnic cleansing. It is very professional at destroying people's homes." Hureini, who has a law degree from Hebron University, said.

"It's a huge crime to displace people," added Hureini, who three years ago required two major surgeries to save his right leg after a settler vehicle rammed him as he worked to rebuild an abandoned Palestinian hamlet.

Military administrators did not respond to a query about Wednesday's demolitions but in the past the stated reason was that homes were built without permits, which are virtually impossible to obtain.

Hureini says he chose non-violence because it is the most effective means of resisting the occupation. "People under occupation have the right to resist in all ways. But my choice is non-violence."

Using violence, he said, would give Israel "the excuse to shoot you and put you in jail. We need to be here to protect the land, not be in jail and be killed," Hureini said, then added: "But Israel is against even non-violent resistance."

Hureini says he wants to see "apartheid, racism and oppression" ended in all the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

Damri, the settler leader, said during a second interview with The Jewish Independent, that he had never heard of Youth of Sumud. But he described Tuwani as "a Fatah village that creates a lot of provocations. They planted trees on state land. They blocked roads. They herd on state land. They uproot trees and cause damage. They always create friction. They provoke and then they cry."

Hureini's trial is being monitored by diplomats including from the United States and European Union. His defence is being funded by the Israeli NGO Human Rights Defenders Fund (HRDF).

At the most recent trial session, on February 8, a soldier who was at the protest where Hureini allegedly went violent testified that Hureini had pushed and attacked him and another soldier. This was at loggerheads with earlier testimony by Keren Aisek, an Israeli who protested alongside Hureini and said he had not pushed anyone.

Hureini said he organised the demonstration to protest an IDF soldiers shooting in the neck of a local Palestinian, Harun Abu Aran as he tried to stop troops from confiscating a generator. Abu Aran became paralyzed because of the injury. The IDF spokesman did not respond to a query made in December by The Jewish Independent  about the incident.

Oriel Eisner, a leader of the Centre for Jewish Non-Violence, who attended the protest, told The Jewish Independent it was "absolutely non-violent".

"I was near Sami pretty much the whole protest and have known him for a long time and been at many different demonstrations with him. He has very strong non-violent discipline and that day as well he didn't hit anyone or touch anyone. He was leading the march and leading chants but he was not physical in any sort of way."

Hureini said he refused the idea of a plea bargain because 'I'm not a criminal for asking for basic rights.'

The IDF spokesman declined a request by The Jewish Independent to interview military prosecutors. HRDF international advocacy officer Einat Fogel-Levin told The Jewish Independent that "there were many flaws and contradictions in the prosecution witnesses' testimonies."

For example, one of the soldiers said there were 200 demonstrators while a police officer said there were only fifty. Moreover, visual footage contradicted some of the testimony, she said.

In HRDF's view, Hureini is being prosecuted as part of a trend across the West Bank of using the army judiciary against Palestinians who stand up for human rights. "Usually only the more prominent ones will be arrested and indicted," Fogel-Levin said.

"We see it as part of a state policy to harden Palestinian lives as much as possible, especially in Area C, to slowly push Palestinians out of the area and change the demographics there," she added. Asked about this, the IDF spokesman declined to directly answer.

Settler violence is so fierce in the area that IDF soldiers have standing orders to escort Palestinian children to school as they walk past the unauthorised Havat Maon settlement. Hureini said he refused the idea of a plea bargain because "I'm not a criminal for asking for basic rights."

 "Those who should be on trial are the ones who shot Harun," he said.

Photo: Sami Hureini (Ben Lynfield)

About the author

Ben Lynfield

Ben Lynfield covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for The Independent and served as Middle Eastern affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He writes for publications in the region and has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and the New Statesman.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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